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Family Separations Strain Overcrowded Migrant Shelters


By now, you've surely seen reports about the conditions at Border Patrol facilities housing asylum-seekers and other would-be migrants. Democratic lawmakers have complained vociferously about conditions they say are squalid and inhumane. And even the Department of Homeland Security's own independent watchdog has raised concerns. Their report found that poor conditions at migrant holding centers are more widespread than initially thought. Meanwhile, the chief accountability officer for Customs and Border Protection, Henry Moak, Jr., said the agency has delivered a, quote, unquote, "extraordinary response given the increase in migrants."

So we wanted to ask what options might be on the table to address these concerns. So we've called Randy Capps. He is the director of research and U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute. That is a nonpartisan organization. Randy Capps, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us here.

RANDY CAPPS: Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: So just so we can be sure that we're all talking about the same thing, can you briefly explain what we're talking about when we talk about Border Patrol facilities? Who ends up in these facilities, and why are the conditions particularly bad right now? I mean, how bad is a matter of debate. But I think both sides agree that there's something not quite right.

CAPPS: Yeah, when people are crossing the border and they're apprehended by the Border Patrol, they take them to their local stations, usually. And these stations are scattered across the border. The stations really aren't accustomed to dealing with really large numbers of people, especially not families and children.

And they're short-term holding facilities, right? They're waiting there for - the adults will go on to ICE detention. The children, if they're alone, will go on to Office of Refugee Resettlement. The families can only be held for about 20 days. So it's sort of a combination of not enough facility, not designed to hold people for long periods and definitely not designed for women and children.

MARTIN: So what are some of the things that would take the pressure off this system? I mean, the Trump administration has truly tried to discourage people from trying to come to begin with. I mean, so that's one approach. So what are some of the other choices?

CAPPS: Well, logistically, the thing that would take the immediate pressure off the Border Patrol stations for the children would be to get them into Office of Refugee Resettlement custody faster. ORR is the agency that's responsible for taking care of them until they can find a family member or someone else in the U.S. to sponsor them. And that system got bottled up in 2014 under the Obama administration when you first started to have large numbers of Central American children coming.

Now you have even higher numbers. And that's been exacerbated by the administration separating the parents from the children, which they are not doing on a large scale but they're still doing on a small scale. So you're just having too many children coming into the Border Patrol stations too quickly and not enough leaving to go into the custody of ORR quickly enough. So that's an immediate bottleneck that needs to be resolved.

MARTIN: Well, what would happen. I mean, how could these children be moved out of there more quickly? I mean, I take it that the first thing to do would be not separate them from their parents, so you presumably have an adult who can be responsible for them. That would be thing one.

CAPPS: Right.

MARTIN: What else?

CAPPS: Right. But I mean some of them arrive on their own, so that's not an issue. I mean, a majority of them arrive on their own. The second thing is you need to make more space available in the shelters that ORR runs through nonprofits, often faith-based organizations, and through for-profit corporations like Southwest Key. There's just not enough of that shelter space available. And the other thing is that the children have been staying longer in those ORR shelters, which leaves less space for new kids coming in.

MARTIN: Why are they staying longer in those shelters?

CAPPS: Well, a number of things have happened. Part of it's because when these unaccompanied children were first arriving in large numbers, a lot of them did have parents living in the U.S. that they could be reunified with. Now some of them don't. Some of them may have a distant relative, an aunt and uncle or may not even have a relative in the country, so it's harder to place them.

The second thing was some policy changes by the Trump administration. They started to arrest sponsors because they're unauthorized immigrants, a lot of them. So they are subject to arrest and deporting some of them. And that kind of chilled their participation. And they also started fingerprinting all the members of the household. And, that way, if you have anyone in the household who's here, illegally, they're going to be very scared to come forward to sponsor people. So that slowed down that system quite a bit.

MARTIN: I think many people will have heard that Congress passed this border spending package that calls for - what? - some billions of dollars to address humanitarian concerns at the border. Do we know exactly where that money would go? And does this address any of the concerns that we're talking about here?

CAPPS: Some of it does. I mean, some of it is to improve the Border Patrol stations, to build better facilities, to hire more doctors and people who can look after the children and ensure that they're in better conditions. And that's a really important part of the package that I think most of the Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed on.

There's also more money for immigration judges and immigration courts. Another thing that's been slowing things down - not necessarily at the level of the Border Patrol but later on - is the fact that there aren't enough immigration judges to see the literally hundreds of thousands of people who are waiting to have their asylum cases handled.

MARTIN: That was Randy Capps. He is the director of research and U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute. Once again, it is a nonpartisan group here in Washington, D.C. Randy Capps, thank you so much for talking to us.

CAPPS: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.