© 2024 KVNF Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Migrant Families Will Stay Together But They'll Be Held Until Their Court Date


Yesterday, Vice President Mike Pence agreed. He said it's a false choice between enforcing the law and compassion. The question now is, how will the administration try to do both? That is the question that NPR's John Burnett is pursuing in Austin, Texas, from which he covers the border.

Hey there, John.


INSKEEP: Let's start with what this policy did before it was ended. More than 2,000 kids were separated from their parents. When, if at all, can they be reunited?

BURNETT: Well, the shorter answer is we don't know. Health and Human Services, which is responsible for their care, hasn't said how or when they'll be reunited. They put out a statement late last night saying it's still early and they're awaiting further guidance about the executive order. They say reunification is always the ultimate goal.

As you said, there are more than 2,300 immigrant kids, some of them toddlers, who've been separated over the past six weeks. They'll remain in those government-contracted shelters while their parents, many of whom don't even know where their kids are, are in criminal or deportation proceedings. And this is Lee Gelernt, an immigration attorney with the ACLU. He sued the government over these child separations.

LEE GELERNT: It says nothing about reuniting the children who have already been separated. We believe there may be thousands of young children who are sitting all by themselves, having been separated by their parents. This does nothing to put into place a process to reunite those children.

INSKEEP: So that's the people who've already been separated. Then there's the question of what happens to families that cross the border now. What happens to them? The order says they'll be detained to the extent permissible under the law. What's the government's plan for housing thousands of people?

BURNETT: So Immigration and Customs Enforcement has these two giant family detention facilities in South Texas. Together, with another small one in Pennsylvania, that's around 3,200 beds to detain families, and they're already mostly filled. So remember, down on the U.S.-Mexico border, they've been apprehending a thousand to 1,500 immigrants a day. Last night, the Border Patrol said it would start keeping families together and continuing to refer all the adults it catches for prosecution.

So if Trump wants to detain all of them, where will they go? And that's why his executive order directs Defense Secretary Mattis to find living quarters to hold even more immigrant families on these military facilities.

INSKEEP: But then there's the question of how long they hold people. We do have this court ruling that says you can only hold children for 20 days. If that's not changed, then that's the law. So what happen - what's the administration going to do?

BURNETT: Well, we're definitely headed for a showdown in the Los Angeles courtroom of federal Judge Dolly Gee, an Obama nominee. Here's Gene Hamilton. He's a counselor for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He spoke to reporters yesterday afternoon.


GENE HAMILTON: The Department of Justice will soon execute the president's order and file the appropriate paperwork in Judge Gee's court in the very near future.

BURNETT: So the Trump administration, and even Obama before him, have been deeply frustrated at the ruling that Gee made three years ago. She said that these ICE family detention centers don't meet minimum child welfare standards. And so she set the 20-day limit for kids to stay there.

Trump's people want to undo the restrictions of this Flores settlement. They want to be able to confine immigrant families together in these secure facilities as long as necessary until their immigration cases are over and they can be deported.

So if Judge Gee doesn't modify the Flores settlement for the Trump administration, the big question is, what is the White House going to do? Will they start releasing these families from detention - the so-called catch and release that has angered immigration conservatives, but which immigrant advocates say is the right thing to do?

INSKEEP: What are immigrant advocates saying now?

BURNETT: Well, they say there's more trouble ahead - that the courts have told the government not to lock up children in detention facilities again and again, even if they're with their parents, even if there's playground equipment and cartoon characters painted on the walls. Here's Michelle Brane with the Women's Refugee Commission.

MICHELLE BRANE: Families who are in immigration custody are going to be just as traumatized. The children involved in these situations are still being traumatized. And changing one form of trauma for another is not a solution.

BURNETT: But the Trump administration seems dead set on not releasing these immigrant families who are fleeing violence and asking for asylum. The government wants to make an example of them and deter anybody else from coming from Central America.

INSKEEP: John, what are you hearing from your contacts - your many contacts - along the border?

BURNETT: Well, actually, I had a conversation yesterday with a Border Patrol supervisor I know in California. Remember, the Border Patrol had been zealous supporters of the president, and he was unhappy about the child separation policy. He said he was stopped at a traffic light in his marked vehicle. A lady pulled up next to him, rolled down her window and yelled, shame on you. How dare you separate these little kids from their parents? He said in his 25 years on the force, this has never happened before.

I haven't spoken with him since, but I'm sure he's relieved the president has now suspended the policy of family separation.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Burnett covering a story that is certainly not over. John, thanks very much.

BURNETT: You bet, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.