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ICE Has New Ways To Keep Asylum-Seekers And Their Kids Apart, Critics Say


Critics say there's a new twist in the Trump administration's expanding campaign to discourage asylum seekers. Attorneys say thousands of detained migrants are being denied bond or face bond so high they can't pay them. NPR's John Burnett has our story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: We're about to meet Maria, who's calling on a phone from inside the detention center where she's being held in Texas. I'm sitting in her lawyer's office in Austin. We're only using Maria's first name and not specifying where the lockup is because she's afraid of retaliation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE.

MARIA: (Through interpreter) You come with your children. You come to escape your problems. But when you get here, you have new problems. I feel like I've been buried alive because I cannot be with my children. It's very hard to endure this situation without knowing what is happening to my sons. Maybe they're doing worse than I am. I feel brokenhearted being separated from my children.

BURNETT: In May, Maria fled Honduras with her young sons. She says her family was threatened by thugs from a rival political party. They floated across the Rio Grande on inner tubes. The Border Patrol caught them and put them in a chilly holding cell on the Texas border. Today, her kids are being held in a shelter in New York. The mother has been in detention for a month. She spoke to them for the first time last week. But her youngest was crying so hard, she said he couldn't talk.

MARIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Maria says she applied for asylum inside of the jail and passed her credible fear interview. It's the first hurdle to gaining asylum. Her attorney says at that point, she expected ICE to release Maria on bond to join her kids. After all, only last week, a federal judge in California ordered the government quickly to reunite parents with their children who had been forcibly removed by immigration agents. But they didn't release her. Maria remains locked up, waiting for her day to make her formal case before a judge. Her attorney is Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch.

KATE LINCOLN-GOLDFINCH: What's so frustrating about her situation is that she has passed her credible fear interview and has this huge sense of relief. And then in the same moment, she's told, you're not getting out for at least several more weeks, if at all.

BURNETT: Lincoln-Goldfinch says she and other immigration attorneys believe this is ICE's new policy to deny bonds or set them so high, in excess of $10,000, they're out of reach for immigrants who arrive broke. She thinks it's part of the government's campaign to stop what it calls the catch and release of unauthorized immigrants.

LINCOLN-GOLDFINCH: Definitely, behind all of this seems to be a deterrent motivation that if we treat our asylum seekers badly enough, they'll stop coming.

BURNETT: An ICE spokesperson emailed NPR, saying the agency does not target asylum seekers for detention, nor does it set bonds punitively. She said ICE sets bonds on a case-by-case basis, based on an immigrant's flight risk, immigration history, criminal history and community ties. But Maria's case is not isolated.

On Monday, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled that five ICE field offices have engaged in systematic detention of thousands of asylum seekers and have not followed the agency's own directives. Those directives say if an asylum applicant passes an initial screening, as Maria did, they should be paroled - another word for released. Lawyers gave figures to the judge that show under President Obama, ICE granted parole to 90 percent of asylum seekers in the five ICE districts. Under President Trump, parole rates have dropped nearly to zero. Eunice Lee is one of the plaintiffs' lawyers and a legal director for the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California, Hastings.

EUNICE LEE: So the criteria is supposed to be very generous and in favor of release. But, in fact, you know with 90-plus percent denial rates, that has not been the criteria that's actually been applied.

BURNETT: The D.C. judge ordered ICE to grant asylum applicants the protections they're due. ICE responded in a separate statement, we are reviewing the decision, and we'll comply with it unless or until it's overturned. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. 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.