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DOJ Says Government Can Hold Families For Longer Than 20 Days


The government says it wants to hold migrant families in detention until their immigration cases are complete. Now, that's according to court papers filed late last night. This will be a big change from past practice because a longstanding court agreement limited the detention of children to 20 days, the latest move by the Trump administration to try to curtail the flow of migrants arriving at the U.S. border in the southern border. And it's likely to spark a fresh round of legal challenges.

NPR's Joel Rose joins us now. Joel, thanks for being with us.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Sure, Scott. Hi.

SIMON: The Trump administration has backed down from the practice of separating families at the border. But there are still about 2,000 migrant children in the government's care. They have been separated from a parent. What does this filing mean for them?

ROSE: Well, we've been waiting to understand how the government plans to reunify those families that were separated as a result of the administration's zero tolerance policy at the southwest border. A federal judge this week gave the administration a very tight deadline. It told them to reunite those families within 30 days and, if the children are younger than 5, within 15 days. And now we know how the government wants to do that. They could - the administration has the option of releasing these parents from immigration detention, letting them live in the U.S. pending their dates in immigration court. But that is not what the administration says it wants. In these court filings, the government makes clear it wants to detain these children along with their parents instead of releasing them.

SIMON: Where will these families be detained?

ROSE: Well, the government is running out of space in detention centers for migrant families. There are two facilities in Texas to detain migrant families, but they're at about 80 percent capacity. So the government is moving ahead with another option. The Department of Defense announced this week that it plans to start building two tent encampments in Texas, one at Fort Bliss in El Paso specifically for migrant families. So these families may be headed to that post in El Paso.

SIMON: But the courts have said children could only be held for 20 days, right? What happens thereafter?

ROSE: Well, the government is trying to reconcile instructions from two different courts here. One of them is the federal court ruling out this week ordering them to reunify these families. And the other is what is known as the Flores settlement, which limits how long children can be held in jail-like settings to about three weeks. So in order to comply with the first ruling, the government says it needs to hold families longer, as long as it takes for their immigration court proceedings to play out. And that can sometimes take months. Even years.

Now, I should say it is not at all clear if the judge overseeing the Flores settlement will sign off on any of this. She could approve long-term detention. But she could also order that the parents be released with their children, that they be monitored with GPS ankle bracelets to ensure that they show up in court. And immigrant rights advocates are already urging the judge to reject the government's plan.

In their filing last night, they say there's no reason to lift the limits in Flores just to remedy the chaos, as they put it, that was caused by the administration's decision to separate these families in the first place. And rights advocates also note that the same judge rejected a similar request from the Obama administration just a few years ago. And they say nothing on the ground has really changed since then.

SIMON: Joel, the reality, not just the idea of separating and detaining families has sparked an outpouring of outrage across the country. Going to be a number of protests today, aren't there?

ROSE: Yeah. Immigrant rights advocates are horrified. They say detaining these children, even with their parents, is profoundly harmful. They point out that these are mostly asylum-seekers, largely women and children from Central America who are fleeing from violence in their home countries. And immigrant rights advocates say we can do better, that these migrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S. to ask for asylum, and that they should be allowed to be free until those claims are heard. Protests are planned today in Washington, D.C., on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and in dozens of towns in other cities all across the country.

SIMON: NPR's Joel Rose, thanks so much.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.