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U.S. Is Running Out Of Space For Separated Migrant Families


Migrant parents separated from their children under the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy could now get a second chance to ask for asylum in the U.S. Meanwhile, immigrant families and children traveling alone continue to be apprehended in large numbers at the Southwest border, and the government continues to struggle with what to do with them. NPR's John Burnett covers immigration for us, and he's on the line from Austin. Hi, John.


SHAPIRO: First tell us about the news today regarding the lawsuits against the federal government over separated families.

BURNETT: Right. The ACLU announced a breakthrough in its negotiations with the Justice Department over the fate of all these parents and kids separated at the Southwest border. One part of the agreement allows separated parents who've been ordered departed to get a second chance to make their case for asylum. And even if it's denied, they may be allowed to stay in the country while their children make their own cases in immigration court.

The agreement would also give parents who were deported home without their kids a second shot at asylum. Some of those parents that are now back in Guatemala and Honduras claim they were intimidated by immigration agents into voluntary departure before they could make their case for why they're fleeing danger. So the ACLU announced today the government will permit parents on a case-by-case basis to return to the United States to ask for protection and to be reunited with their child. It's a big deal because Homeland Security was dead set against parents being allowed to return to the U.S. once they're deported.

SHAPIRO: Right. And there's also some new information to help answer the larger question about whether this controversial policy of family separation actually succeeded in deterring immigrant families from making the journey north to the U.S. border.

BURNETT: Right, Ari. And so yesterday there were some new figures released by Customs and Border Protection, the August numbers for people apprehended at the border. And they were disheartening to the government. The numbers of parents with children arrested at the border jumped nearly 40 percent, more than 400 people a day. That breaks the record for arrests of families at the border. In the busy Rio Grande Valley down here in South Texas, they used buses, not vans, to haul all the migrants to the station for processing.

And we also learned that the flow of unaccompanied kids crossing the border without a parent has not slacked off. There's been a 12 percent increase in those arrests. That's about 140 kids taken into custody every day.

SHAPIRO: Those are such large numbers. What is the government doing with these undocumented immigrants? Where are they going?

BURNETT: Well, the families are released with a Notice to Appear in immigration court, which the administration hates. It complains that migrant families come here knowing they won't be detained. And the kids traveling alone are sent to shelters, but the government is running out of places to put them. Just this week, we heard that that big tent camp for teenage immigrants built in the Chihuahuan Desert out in Tornillo, Texas, will expand from 1,200 to 3,800 beds.


BURNETT: And - yeah, right.

SHAPIRO: But isn't the objective not to warehouse these immigrant children but rather to release them to sponsors here in the United States?

BURNETT: And that's where the bottleneck occurs. I spoke with a shelter manager out in Tornillo yesterday, and he told me the problem is that Health and Human Services is taking so long to vet family members who stepped forward to sponsor the kids. HHS has this new rule. They have to fingerprint everyone who's living in the house where the kids are headed, and that can take a long time. Currently there are 12,800 kids in the government's care, an all-time high. The shelter manager told me it's like having a restaurant where people keep coming in the door, but no one leaves.

SHAPIRO: That number 12,000 is so large. What does the government say about that?

BURNETT: A spokesman for Health and Human Services got back to me on email, and she said it's taking so long because the government - because the department, quote, "maintains high standards for vetting children sponsors for the safety and well-being of the child." She added, children who entered the country illegally are at a high risk for exploitation by traffickers. And finally, she said there's a crisis at the border, and it's a symptom of a larger problem - a broken immigration system.

SHAPIRO: NPR's John Burnett in Austin, Texas - thanks, John.

BURNETT: You bet. 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.