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Following Up On 1,500 Missing Immigrant Children In The U.S.


Let's disentangle some confusing news about immigration. Here are several intersecting, overlapping news stories. President Trump's administration vowed to separate migrant parents from their children if they crossed the U.S. border illegally. U.S. officials testified recently that they have lost track of almost 1,500 migrant children in their care. Photos have been circulating on the Internet of detention facilities for children, but some of those photos, it turns out, date back to President Obama's administration. And President Trump blamed Democrats for the whole thing.

What's going on here? Well, Cecilia Munoz was President Obama's domestic policy director and his point person on immigration. She's in our studios. Thanks for coming by.

CECILIA MUNOZ: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Let's try to - all this stuff is coming at us at once. But let's try to work back and put it into a narrative, put it in order. First, there are photos on the Internet of detention centers for children. They're pretty disturbing. It looks like kids in cages or on mattresses - sleeping on mattresses. But these were from 2014.

MUNOZ: Right.

INSKEEP: What was happening in 2014?

MUNOZ: In 2014, we saw an enormous spike, compared to what usually happens every year, in the number of kids crossing alone into the United States.

INSKEEP: Unaccompanied minors, as people would say.

MUNOZ: Unaccompanied kids. They either rode on the top of the train which crosses Mexico or they were brought by smugglers. And we didn't have enough shelter facilities because we had a huge increase. And so kids ended up kind of piling up in Border Patrol lockups, which are no places for children.

INSKEEP: And President Obama's determination, as I recall, was to adjudicate their cases very quickly and, in many cases, send them back, deport them.

MUNOZ: Well, in fact, what the Obama administration did, which is what the law requires, is to find shelter facilities for those kids, which were put together by the Department of Health and Human Services. So the goal was to get kids out of the Border Patrol into proper care by HHS, and then HHS is supposed to release them to the least restrictive setting. And in more than 80 percent of the cases, that was their parents who were already in the United States.

INSKEEP: Well, that leads us to the next step. HHS - that's the Department of Health and Human Services. Recently, they did a survey of children, like asking what happened to them, where are they now, and 1,475 or so who were supposed to be tracked by the agency were missing. Are those some of these same unaccompanied minors?

MUNOZ: That's exactly who these kids are. Right. So HHS - its job is to place the kids in the least restrictive setting. In the vast majority of cases, those kids had parents in the United States. Most of the time, those parents were also here illegally. So what I think has happened with those missing cases is in many cases those parents and kids have been reunited and they've gone off the grid. They don't want to be contacted by a government agency.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. When I hear 1,475 kids missing, it sounds like an outrage. Are you telling me I shouldn't be that outraged?

MUNOZ: Well, look, there's always reason to be concerned. This is an agent - a federal agency which placed kids, in most cases, with their own families. That doesn't mean that every placement is terrific, but it's - the most likely case is that these are undocumented families and they don't want contact with the federal government. And you don't necessarily want HHS tracking these families after they've placed their kids because, look, in this administration, you can't necessarily rely upon the authorities not to be using whatever contact they have for purposes of immigration enforcement.

INSKEEP: OK. Let's talk about this administration because we were talking about unaccompanied minors during the Obama administration. What is different with the Trump administration when it comes to children crossing the border? What's their policy change?

MUNOZ: Attorney General Sessions announced a policy change. Now, if a parent comes in the United States with their child, even if they're fleeing for their lives, the policy of the United States is to separate that child from the parent no matter what the age (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: Is that different? Did you not do that in the Obama administration at all?

MUNOZ: No. The Obama administration did not do that. No, we did not separate children from their parents. This is a new decision, a policy decision, made by the attorney general which puts us in league with the most brutal regimes in the world's history. These - in many cases, these are people who are fleeing because of violence in their home country. The responsibility of the United States under the law is to determine who has a well-founded fear, who might qualify for political asylum. That's a hard job to do to sort out folks who might be economic migrants from folks who might be in danger. But our job is to make sure that we protect people who are in danger. What this administration has chosen to do instead is to terrorize these families in the hope that that terror will deter them from coming in the first place.

INSKEEP: Well, President Trump tweeted about this or appeared to tweet about this. There's a lot in the tweet. But there's one sentence in it, and it says, put pressure - put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from their parents once they cross the border into the U.S. Is there a law requiring the separation of parents from their children?

MUNOZ: No, there is not. The attorney general announced this policy not very long ago. This is the Trump administration's posture.

INSKEEP: John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, defended this policy on this program in an interview with NPR's John Burnett the other day. He was asked, isn't it cruel to take a mother from her children? And let's listen to some of what he had to say.


JOHN KELLY: The children will be taken care of - put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States. And this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.

INSKEEP: A couple of parts there; first, put into foster care or whatever. Is the United States competent to do that?

MUNOZ: So that means more kids in the hands of HHS. This is not what HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement is for. They don't have the budget for this. And it is just outrageous to suggest that we can come up with decent care for kids when they're being separated from their parents, especially when we're talking about in many cases parents who have brought those children to save their lives. It's - I don't have words for how reprehensible that policy is.

INSKEEP: But let's talk about the other part of John Kelly's statement - the big point is they elected to come illegally. This is clearly an effort to deter people from coming at all, warning them this is a dangerous thing for you to do. Don't do it.

MUNOZ: But here's the thing. It is not illegal to approach the border and say, I want asylum. I fear for my life. The law actually provides for that. They are lumping folks who are essentially refugees in with illegal migrants. And it's not the same thing. In fact, it is legal to approach the border. These are not folks who are trying to evade our border authorities. They get to the border, and they look for the Border Patrol because what they're saying is I'm coming to the United States for refuge. And what we are doing is saying, fine, we'll take your children away.

INSKEEP: Cecilia Munoz, thanks very much.

MUNOZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Cecilia Munoz was President Obama's domestic policy director, currently is a vice president with New America, a social advocacy group.

(SOUNDBITE OF HADOKEN'S "PRELUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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