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How Federal Authorities Track Undocumented Minors


As we mentioned, President Trump has suggested that existing law - in his words a horrible law - is to blame for what is happening now at the border with children being separated from their parents. And again, President Trump blames Democrats for what's happening. We put that claim to Bob Carey, who ran the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the Obama administration.

BOB CAREY: My experience both in the Obama administration and under prior administrations, both Republican and Democratic, was that the law was not interpreted in the same way. And children were not being separated from their parents unless there was a very strong body of evidence that indicated that they were not their parents.

KELLY: So you're saying the existing law, yes, correct, was in place, but it's being interpreted in a different way under this administration.

CAREY: It would appear that way, yes. You know, in the past, under both international and U.S. law, if someone fleeing a country where they were experiencing violence and were asking for protection at a U.S. border, this was not interpreted as a violation of law or illegal entry. Nor was it assumed that if they were traveling with their parent that that was not a legitimate relationship and that they should be separated, particularly with small children. It has not been a policy under any administration that I'm aware of.

KELLY: I want to pivot you to another immigration issue that has also gone viral on social media under the hashtag #MissingChildren. Last month, a Health and Human Services official was testifying on Capitol Hill and said that the federal government had lost track of nearly 1,500 immigrant children. First, to be clear, this is a separate issue from children who are separated from their parents at the border. These are children who were entering the country unaccompanied, correct?

CAREY: Yes, correct.

KELLY: And who are they? Where are they coming from?

CAREY: These children are - for the most part they are older teenagers - you know, 14, 15, 16 - who have fled violence in Central America - El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras - often gang violence. So fleeing gangs, not members of gangs as a general rule - who have been apprehended at the border, usually presented themselves, and are taken into the custody of Customs and Border Patrol and then placed in the care of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement until they can be reunited with a sponsor in the United States and then go through the legal processes. So, you know, over 90 percent of those cases are joining close family members, eventually, after those relationships can be verified. So I would argue that for particularly those children who are joining a parent or a close family member, calling them lost is - it might be, you know, misinterpreting the facts.

KELLY: What does that mean, that federal authorities have lost track of them?

CAREY: Well, I think the interpretation was ORR, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, has custody of the children until they are released to a sponsor who can be identified and their relationship and identity verified. What I believe they're interpreting as lost is individuals who did not respond to follow-up phone calls after 30 days, which are routinely provided. So it's essentially not answering a phone call to verify where they are. And I think that's not at all surprising in the current climate where fear has been sown in immigrant communities that they may be apprehended or that they are targeted by law enforcement. So that creates a disincentive for people to maintain contact or come forward when contacted by a federal agency.

KELLY: You're saying in many cases these people might not want to be found.

CAREY: Exactly. And that's not at all surprising given some of the rhetoric we're hearing about immigrant communities that they would not want to identify themselves to a federal office which has made clear is now sharing their contact information with law enforcement agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. So that certainly creates a disincentive for people to answer the phone and say, this is where I am. Or, you know, it creates an incentive in some instances for them to perhaps move and not provide forwarding address information.

KELLY: Well, circling back to this number that has caused an uproar, this - federal authorities saying they lost track of nearly 1,500 immigrant children last year. When you heard that number, what went through your mind? Does that strike you as a surprising number?

CAREY: That number seems quite large. You know, I don't know the exact statistics, but I think that it's been established that children are staying in care for longer periods of time and fewer sponsors are coming forward, from what I've read. So I think that has changed greatly from the time that I was working in government, from what I understand.

KELLY: That's Bob Carey, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement under President Obama. Mr. Carey, thank you.

CAREY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF STILL CORNERS SONG, "THE FIXER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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