KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Update On Immigration And Family Separations

Jun 20, 2018
Originally published on June 20, 2018 7:18 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump says he is going to support House Republicans 1,000 percent in their effort to pass immigration reform. This week, they are set to take up two different immigration measures. And President Trump met with House Republicans last night on Capitol Hill. Here's Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo of Florida describing the president's message.

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CARLOS CURBELO: I think he was explicit in that he is going to support House Republicans who take a risk and vote for meaningful immigration.

GREENE: But was he explicit enough? We should say many Republicans left feeling confused about what specific bill the president might actually sign. Now, this debate on Capitol Hill comes amid a furor over Trump administration policy that has led to families being separated after illegally crossing the border into the United States. And we have two colleagues who are covering this story from different posts. NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell is in Washington. And NPR's John Burnett is with us from Austin, Texas. Good morning to you both.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Kelsey, let me start with you and the situation in Congress. There are two Republican bills. And I guess we should say these bills were in the works or the party was working on finding some sort of compromise on immigration before the whole issue of separation at the border really has become the firestorm.

SNELL: Yeah. This all started a couple months ago, actually, when a group of moderate Republicans wanted to have a fix for the immigrants that we typically call DREAMers, those people who are in the country illegally after being brought here as children. So they started working on immigration then, and they're now under really intense pressure to pass something because of this family separation policy.

And, you know, both of the bills that they are considering do have provisions to address the family separation issue. But it is, like you said, not all that clear that either of these can pass. And, in part, that's because the president didn't really endorse either of them specifically. And that's something leaders really needed to, you know, to reassure members that it would be worth their vote to go out on a limb politically on an issue that has been really difficult for a lot of them, the idea of creating a pathway or a - an easier way for some immigrants to get to citizenship. And the president kind of endorsed both, then some members said they just kind of - that he endorsed kind of the whole concept of Republicans doing immigration in general.

GREENE: Which might be motivating for them, but it doesn't give them any guidance on what exactly - what bill might actually pass. Did - there's been so much anger over the separation of families, did lawmakers have a chance to confront the president, ask him about it?

SNELL: They didn't. He spoke for almost an hour, and they had to rush off. They had regularly scheduled votes that were at the very end of his comments. And so they didn't actually get to address this with the president. The president kind of did talk about it himself, but members didn't have that opportunity.

GREENE: Let me turn to you, John Burnett, and the situation at the border. I want to ask you about these children who have been separated from their families. I think the number is now in the thousands. And I guess, I mean, one question I have is, who is keeping track of where these children go once they're in U.S. custody?

BURNETT: Well, one of the issues is that once they're separated, they are split up between two different federal agencies. When the Border Patrol writes its arrest narrative - in the ones that I've seen - there's no mention of the existence of a child who came in with their parent. So an accompanied child becomes legally an unaccompanied child. The question is, how do you reunite, say, a mother and daughter? Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Health and Human Services both have 1-800 hotlines for detained parents to reach their kids in shelters. But public defenders and immigrant advocates say they can spend 30 minutes to an hour waiting for a real person to answer, and they still don't learn where a child is.

ICE says it's making every effort to reunite the children with their parents. But I think the government finds it easier to break up families than put them together again. And you can imagine how complicated it is. You're talking about, in some cases, a young child who can't provide useful information. According to The Associated Press, pre-teen children as young as toddlers are being sent to three so-called tender-age shelters in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. And there's a fourth one being considered in Houston. Lawyers and clinicians who visited have described playrooms with preschool-age kids crying inconsolably.

GREENE: And the president, John, has said that he doesn't like the situation, although there are many people - including people from his own party - who say that he could just fix it himself. He, though, has passed the buck to Congress. We heard Kelsey saying that the Republican Party does not appear close, it seems, to having a clear solution. So if this - if Congress doesn't fix this through legislation, are there alternatives to taking children from their parents?

BURNETT: Well, you know, we've been hearing from administration spokespeople and the conservative media about how if the government doesn't prosecute these people and jail them and also take their kids away, they'll abscond. But there are alternatives to detention. I received an email from ICE yesterday with an amazing statistic - 99.8 percent of participants enrolled in alternatives to detention successfully make it to immigration court. And I know lots of immigrant parents with children are being released right now in South Texas wearing these electronic ankle monitors. When they strap them on, they agree to appear at all their immigration hearings and check in with ICE periodically. Conservatives contradict ICE, saying the no-show rate is actually much higher.

But there - so there are three of these electronic alternatives, two more - telephonic reporting allows a participant to call a number that recognizes their voice print and constitutes a check in. And finally, there's a program launched earlier this year that I think a guest mentioned in the earlier hour called SmartLINK that allows the immigrant to check in with their mobile phone. And the Government Accountability Office found that these kinds of electronic supervision are the cheapest form of monitoring, much less expensive than detention, which is what the Trump administration wants more of.

GREENE: OK, so alternatives there. Kelsey, has the president reacted to all of this public backlash?

SNELL: I spoke to a number of members who said that he raised the issue of the backlash in that meeting, saying that his daughter Ivanka talked to him about it and that the president acknowledged both that the policy looks bad and the optics look bad.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Kelsey Snell and John Burnett. Thank you so much to both of you for covering this story. We appreciate it.

SNELL: Thank you.

BURNETT: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.