AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today is the court-imposed deadline to reunite immigrant children with their parents, but hundreds of families have not been reunited More than a month after immigration authorities began separating them at the border under President Trump's zero tolerance policy. Our co-host Ari Shapiro is in South Texas covering this story. And, Ari, where exactly in South Texas are you?
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Hi, Audie. I'm in McAllen, Texas, which is the southeasternmost edge of the U.S.-Mexico border. We're in the Rio Grande Valley, which is where the largest number of undocumented immigrants have been picked up recently. A lot of them are being held in detention centers near here. You might remember seeing coverage of a Walmart that was turned into a shelter for migrant kids. That's right around this area. But a lot of kids have been sent to group homes and foster care all over the U.S., and some of their parents have been sent back to Central America. And that all adds to the challenge of reuniting these families.
CORNISH: And you've been out reporting on this, I understand, at a Greyhound bus station. And this is where some recently reunited families basically are heading out to their next destinations, right?
SHAPIRO: Exactly. You can hear the sound of the bus station behind me right now. It is this cool, air-conditioned space where people are trying to figure out what their next step is. You can tell who the immigrants are because many of them have ankle monitors, and a lot of them are carrying big manila envelopes that have printed on the front in big bold letters, please help me; I do not speak English; what bus do I need to take? Thank you for your help. And then some of them have written in sharpie on the envelopes a destination and a time for a bus. So you see Shreveport, Houston, Atlanta.
While I was here, a group of about 40 women and children arrived from a nearby shelter, and a volunteer started reading out names and handing people envelopes with bus tickets.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
SHAPIRO: I met a woman named Yvette Caceres (ph), mother of three. She was separated from her 14-year-old daughter for just a couple of days. And she told me she was relieved that it wasn't longer. They were just reunited yesterday.
YVETTE CACERES: (Through interpreter) It's really sad because she's never been separated from me, and she didn't want to be away from her brothers. But it's OK now 'cause we're together.
SHAPIRO: And now you're here in this bus station. Where do you go next? What happens now?
CACERES: (Through interpreter) I'm going to go to my friend's house, but you're not allowed to work. But I have three kids, and I need to work. So I need to find a lawyer, but I'm not sure how to do that.
SHAPIRO: This bus station is full of volunteers and aid workers from immigration organizations. And I met a woman named Dr. Melba Salazar-Lucio with an organization called Angry Tias & Abuelas. That's angry aunts and grandmas. She told me her group has been handing out gift cards to the Subway sandwich shop here. Or in some cases, they're just handing out cash. Dr. Salazar-Lucio told me about one moment when the Red Cross came here with blankets to distribute, and some of the migrants were afraid.
MELBA SALAZAR-LUCIO: She said she didn't want her kids in a line because the last time they were in a line, they took them away from her. I said, oh, that's why you don't have a blanket.
SHAPIRO: I arranged to meet an immigration lawyer here named Ruby Powers. She is based in Houston but came down to McAllen for this reunification day. Ruby, thanks for joining us. And why did you come down to McAllen today?
RUBY POWERS: Today I am here waiting to reunite one of my clients with her son, who should be arriving later on tonight.
SHAPIRO: We're going to talk about and hear from that client in a moment. But first, what are you seeing today with immigrants who have been separated from their families on this reunification day?
POWERS: It's chaos. There's lots of moving parts. We've got people getting released, reunited and, you know, only a few hours maybe of a little bit of help before they need to get on a bus to go to another state. They might not have cellphones. They might not have clothes. They - money - they might not have anything, somebody to help guide them through. Many people are just - are new to the ways of the United States. Even my client - had to keep reminding her to put her seatbelt on or little things like that. So I'm just seeing a lot of moving parts, and we're still - the legal side is not done. We're still trying to get people out. We're trying to get bonds. We're trying to get people released and reunited.
SHAPIRO: Some members of the Trump administration have said there are parents who would rather return to Central America in hopes that their children in the United States can have a better life even if that means long-term or permanent separation. Do you think that's true?
POWERS: No, I don't want to speak for everyone, but I do know that one father I spoke to said that if he had to choose, he'd rather have his child stay in the United States 'cause he knew if he returned, it would be sudden death.
SHAPIRO: So today is the court-appointed deadline. Does this feel to you like a finish line, like a marker on a much longer journey? What does this feel like to you?
POWERS: I mean, you would think that this is going to be the grand finale, but it's not. I mean, people need to realize not everybody is reunited. I mean, even my client - we're waiting - it might be two hours close to the deadline before. There are people who are still separated. There's people that were deported. And the story is not over.
People might have been reunited maybe, but now they're - they - their child is traumatized. They're traumatized. They're trying to pick up by their bootstraps and move to somewhere else in the U.S. They have to deal with their legal aspect of their case, file a change of venue within only a couple of weeks of release, deal with their ankle monitor if they have one. There's still so much work they have to do. And if they make a mistake, they'll have a deportation order over their heads, which means it's just a matter of time before they will be removed from the country.
SHAPIRO: Tell us about your client. We have some tape of her here that we're going to play. Her name is Maria. She's a mother. Tell us more about her.
POWERS: So Maria entered the U.S. in early June, and she was separated the next day with her 7-year-old son. And he was taken to New York, and they've been separated ever since. She was released on bond on Tuesday, and we have been contacting the case manager all week. And we're hoping and praying that today will be the day. I've been with her, helping her out get clothes, cellphone, get acclimated, getting ready. She's out buying a toy for her son right now. We're hoping that they're reunited tonight and I can put them on a bus to go to their next destination.
SHAPIRO: Ruby Powers, thank you so much. And now let's listen to some tape from your client Maria speaking this morning. And she begins by describing the day she was separated from her son.
MARIA: (Through interpreter) My son started to cry and to say, Mama, how long am I going to be in this place? How long? And then I told him, you're only going to be there two weeks, my love. You'll see that soon, God will take us out of here. But a long time passed, a long time, and it never happened. There were some women who spent a long time - up to 15, 20 days - where they didn't speak with their children. And they spent all of their time crying, these women. I told them, have strength. Have courage because God is going to take us out of this place.
(Through interpreter) And it's been a long time since I've talked with my son. I talked to him, like, three or four times, and he said, Mama, you said I'd only be here for two weeks, and I've been here more than a month already, he told me. And that made me cry. A kid needs his liberty. He needs to be free, to be with his mother. And to me, it's unjust what they're doing with these families.
SHAPIRO: We have that tape of Maria thanks to our correspondent John Burnett, who's been covering the immigration story for months and is kind enough to join us at this bus station in McAllen, Texas. Hi, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Welcome to the Rio Grande Valley, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So how typical is Maria's story?
BURNETT: It's the thing that you hear again and again. I've interview so many Central American immigrants now, and they talk of leaving their countries because of domestic violence, abuse of a partner or, most often, just thuggery in these villages, gangsterism, street gangs who are trying to recruit their sons or rape their daughters, who are extorting the parents. And if they don't pay up, they'll burn their house or worse. And so these parents grab their kids, usually pay a coyote, a smuggler. And they head for the Texas-Mexico border. And here they are at a bus station.
SHAPIRO: And that fear of violence is why we're not using Maria's full name.
SHAPIRO: So we've reached the day that is the court-appointed deadline for family reunification. How many of these families are actually brought together now?
BURNETT: So we just heard a call from Health and Human Services, which is in charge of the kids. And the newest numbers are about 2,550 kids who are eligible for reuniting. A little over 1,400 of them have been reunited as of right now. And the government says that they will reunite all those who are eligible for being rejoined with their parents by the deadline of midnight tonight - so could be up to 1,500. But that still leaves about 1,000 or 1,100 that are not going to be eligible for reuniting. And so the question to that then becomes, you know, where there - are they in jail? Are there criminal convictions? Did they not pass their DNA parentage test, or are they out of the country? Hundreds of them are out of the country, feared deported.
SHAPIRO: And if the government deems them ineligible for one of these reasons, does that mean the effort is over; they're not going to keep trying to reunify these kids and the people who say they are their parents?
BURNETT: You know, this is going to continue for days because this has really been a - it's been a fast process but a chaotic one. And we even heard from Maria, the immigrant quoted earlier in this piece, that there are a lot of women who are still in detention who are waiting for their kids. So this is going to drag on for some time.
SHAPIRO: I'm reminded of when the Trump administration first announced this zero tolerance policy. Many officials said it was meant to be a deterrent to keep people from trying to cross the border. Has it had that effect?
BURNETT: I think it's too early to say. Obviously I have talked to immigrants who said, if I'd known that they were going to take my child from me in detention and lock them away for weeks or months and keep me detained, I wouldn't have brought them in the first place. That message tends to get back to Central America. So we'll have to see if the apprehension numbers dive down after this zero tolerance policy.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's John Burnett speaking with me here in this bus station in McAllen, Texas. Thanks so much, John.
BURNETT: You bet, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.