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White House Outlines Long-Term Plans For Detention Of Immigrant Families


The White House is defending its new policy of separating immigrant families who cross the border illegally. Top advisers say they would like to detain the families together, but they don't have room in current facilities to do so. Separating parents and children has been hugely controversial.

NPR's John Burnett reports that the administration has no intention of backing down. And John Burnett is on the line now from Austin. Hey there.


KELLY: Hey. So as we said, this policy has been hugely controversial. What exactly did the administration say today in defending it?

BURNETT: Well, there was a call this morning between the White House's policy people and reporters. And what they told us is they want more detention space for these families. Currently there are only two big family jails in South Texas, and they're not used that much because federal law only allows children to be locked up for three weeks. The White House wants Congress to change the rules that govern these immigrant kids. And officials said they want to be able to detain parents with their children in these family-friendly jails for more than 21 days until they can be deported.

KELLY: Let me pick up on something you said there. You said the White House wants Congress to change the rules. But Congress hasn't changed the rules yet - right? - or given any new funding for more detention beds. So how does the administration move forward with this?

BURNETT: Well, so first of all, they say that there's a crisis at the border, that the numbers of Central American families has spiked in recent months. They say they're fleeing gang violence and abusive husbands and asking for asylum. The Trump administration is determined to stop the flow. And they figure the next move is to break up the families at the border. Here's Kevin O'Malley from the Department of Justice.

KEVIN O'MALLEY: I think it should be made very clear that when the federal government and their law enforcement components transfer adults into the custody of U.S. Marshals Service for criminal prosecution, their children cannot go with them.

KELLY: Their children cannot go with them. John, what does that actually look like on the border?

BURNETT: Well, I've been hearing reports of a sea change in enforcement at the border - federal courtrooms down there crowded with all these new defendants, as many as 50, 60 at a time in the courtroom. Remember; federal prosecutors are now under orders to file charges against every single person who crosses illegally, which could be a single male or mothers with kids.

KELLY: Put a human face on this for me. I mean, you've covered this for so long. Just describe what a typical case looks like, how it unfolds under this new policy.

BURNETT: Well, it could be a young mother from Guatemala comes up with a 7-year-old child. She crosses the river illegally, surrenders to the Border Patrol and asks for protection in the U.S. The government thinks she's gaming the system. And so they're going to prosecute her for illegal entry, which is a misdemeanor. The judge will typically sentence her to time served for the two or three days she's already been in custody. Then she's transferred to an immigration detention center.

But meanwhile, her child has been delivered to Health and Human Services, another agency. They're supposed to care for the child and ultimately find a family member in the country they can live with. But the mother has no idea what's become of her kid.

And critics say what's maddening is that there's no federal policy that requires the reuniting of the parent and child. The government maintains this is standard procedure. They have to remove a child when the parent is prosecuted whether it's a bank robber or an undocumented immigrant.

KELLY: But is that true? Do they have to remove a child? We've talked to other experts who say that's not the case; the administration doesn't have to do this.

BURNETT: Well, let's hear from Michelle Brane. She's with the Women's Refugee Commission. And she says that's absurd.

MICHELLE BRANE: Family separation is not required by any law as alleged by the Trump administration. And in fact, it's very clear that the administration's own policy - which has been clearly designed to punish parents who are just trying to get their children to safety.

KELLY: All right, that's NPR's John Burnett reporting from Austin. John, thank you.

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.