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Federal Officials Try To Address Criticism Over Where Children Are Being Detained


It's been five days since President Trump signed an executive order abandoning his administration's policy of separating migrant families at the border. Since then, federal officials have tried to reassure the public that they are working to reunite parents and children. Here's Mark Weber, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services. They oversee a network of about a hundred youth shelters around the country.


MARK WEBER: We know where their parents are. We are working as fast as we possibly can to reunify children with sponsors here in the U.S.


Meantime, families who were separated after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally have described bureaucratic obstacles and frantic searches for their children. Today federal officials invited media on a tour of a tent encampment in far west Texas. It holds young migrants who crossed the border illegally sometimes with their parents, others on their own. NPR's John Burnett was on that tour, and he joins me now. Hey, John.


KELLY: Hey. So tell me where you are now and where exactly you were this morning.

BURNETT: Well, I'm in El Paso in far west Texas. It's about 30 miles from a remote, wind-blown border crossing with Mexico, Tornillo. And that's the U.S. government's newest emergency shelter for migrant kids. There's about 20 sand-colored tents sitting out in the middle of the desert about a hundred yards from the border fence and beyond that the Rio Grande.

Today they have 326 migrant kids ages 12 to 17, mostly boys, a few girls. Most are from Central America, and they crossed the border alone. Twenty-three of them were separated from their parents, who crossed the border illegally. And under the president's child separation policy, they were sent here. And their parents are detained elsewhere waiting to see if they get asylum.

KELLY: All right, well, let me turn you to the big question. What is next for all these children?

BURNETT: Well, for the kids who were separated, these shelter managers say they're working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement trying to reunite them with their family members. There's been enormous criticism that this reunification process is in chaos and that parents can't find their kids among the almost 12,000 immigrant children currently in U.S. government custody.

Out here in Tornillo there have been regular protests outside the fence line since it opened 12 days ago. Members of Congress and officials from across Texas have come here with great concern to inspect conditions inside. So U.S. Health and Human Services, which are responsible for caring for these unaccompanied children, opened up the shelter to journalists this morning to show the world that these kids, who are mostly teenagers, are well taken care of.

KELLY: Right, because reporters have been trying to get into this very facility for - since it opened 12 days ago. You finally made it in. What does it look like inside? What are conditions like?

BURNETT: Well, the first thing that strikes you is the heat out here in the...

KELLY: Yeah.

BURNETT: ...Chihuahuan Desert. Afternoon temperatures are soaring to 103, 104, 105 degrees. These are military-grade tents with pretty thick sides, lots of air conditioning. There's even a cooling station next to the soccer field, which is made of Astroturf. And they have the same services I've seen in these other HHS-contracted youth shelters like 24-hour medical care, mental health, individual case workers, a mess hall with three hot meals. And it's completely self-contained like a space station. They have their own power and water and Internet. They have a tent with phone stations. I counted nine operators.

And the kids are supposed to be able to call family in the U.S. abroad to tell them where they are. Most of the migrant kids stay in HHS custody for about two months before they're allowed to join relatives who are already living in the U.S. The parents either stay locked up while their case is heard, or they can agree to voluntarily return to Central America with these children.

KELLY: Real briefly, John, a lot of comparisons flying between the situation today and the crisis in 2014 under President Obama, when nearly 60,000 migrant kids were surging across the border. You covered that. What is different?

BURNETT: Well, HHS admits they made a lot of mistakes four years ago, and they were not ready for the surge of unaccompanied kids then. So the whole purpose of what we saw this morning was to not hold children in the border patrol facilities for more than 72 hours, these cage-like pens sometimes referred to as freezers which are very inhospitable for kids or anybody else. And so that's what this shelter in Tornillo is all about.

KELLY: All right, that is NPR's John Burnett reporting on Tornillo now in El Paso, Texas. Thanks very much, John.

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