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Advocates say government gave no thought to reuniting children separated at the border

While hundreds of migrant children have reportedly been reunited with their parents after being forcibly separated, the complicated and chaotic situation raises doubt and fear for many. John Yang talks with Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, and Amna Nawaz, who updates the story of a grandmother and granddaughter who crossed legally to claim asylum, and were separated.

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  • John Yang:

    We return to immigration and the complicated process of reuniting children and parents who were forcibly separated at the border.

    Wendy Young is the president of Kids In Need of Defense, which provides legal services to unaccompanied and separated migrant children, and our own Amna Nawaz, who has just returned from a week reporting on the southwestern border.

    Amna, welcome back.

    Welcome to both of you, Wendy and Amna.

    Amna, terrific reporting on the border and terrific work with Frank Carlson.

    From the contacts you have made, you have gotten anecdotal evidence that separations are continuing?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right.

    Sort of the best way to explain that this is still very much a situation, a system in chaos, there was a woman we profiled a couple of days ago, a grandmother and her granddaughter, a 3-year-old girl named Sophie who turned just 4 yesterday, actually.

    And they crossed legally on Wednesday morning. They made the crossing at the El Paso bridge. And she is now seeking asylum. The whole family was fleeing cartel violence in Mexico. We got word just a little while ago actually from the grandmother, who has been released from government custody, where she's been the last couple of days, that the girl was taken from her this morning.

    They were forcibly separated. They basically, because you are not her mother, we are now taking the girl into custody. We will contact the mother. She clarified the girl's birth mother is in the United States. She has an asylum case pending. But she hasn't been raising that daughter. She has been raising another baby that she crossed with a while ago.

    We spoke with the mother as well. The mother told us that last night she got a call saying her daughter was going into government custody, that she wouldn't hear anything about the child for the next five days. She was given a case number and just a general number to call. And that's where these families are right now.

  • John Yang:

    Wendy, how common and uncommon is what Amna told us just now?

  • Wendy Young:

    Well, what we're seeing is a very systematic policy of trying to do this in 100 percent of the cases.

    Now, of course, the executive order that was issued yesterday, they are saying that they are going to prevent this. But as you're reporting, we suspect that it will continue onward.

    And what they are doing here is really trying to punish these families for coming to the border, to do nothing but what is their legal right, which is to seek asylum. And then they're also trying to deter other families who may be thinking about making the voyage to the United States from coming.

  • John Yang:

    And, Amna, in your reporting, talk about sort of the — tell us about the difficulties in locating — parents locating their children, children locating their parents and communicating.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes, difficulty is really an understatement.

    It's near impossible. And we're not just talking about parents who are caught up in one part of the system. If they're being criminally prosecuted, it's a whole separate agency, but also if they're just being detained and maybe moved to civil proceedings, it's a whole separate part.

    Meanwhile, children are handled under an entirely different agency and institution. It's the lawyers. It's the people who are experts in this and navigating the government system.

    I was shown page after page of contact of people just trying to figure out where is the child of my client? This child may have a medical need. Is he or she getting the medication that the may need? They have all gone through psychological and emotional trauma. Are they getting any support for that?

    And that's the frustration that we heard again and again, that they have no idea where the kids are. It's near impossible to locate. And if parents are being criminally prosecuted, sometimes they're deported before they have ever made contact with their kids.

  • John Yang:

    Wendy, is that common again? Is that sort of your experience?

  • Wendy Young:

    Not at all.

    This was a policy implemented with no thought given to how do you reunify families, how do you allow them to communicate while they're in detention?

    So, to the point that you were making, those of us in the nonprofit sector are scrambling with the very little information that we have at hand to try and make those connections happen.

    The government really should have been the one doing this from the very beginning. That should have been a bare minimum standard, if they were going to separate these families after arrival at the border.

  • John Yang:

    So, when they separated them, there was no thought of how to reunify them, how to bring them back together at the end of this process?

  • Wendy Young:

    Absolutely none.

    And, of course, you have got various federal agencies involved. You now have the family members on separate legal tracks with different cases. It is extraordinarily difficult to try and figure out what's going on and to bring these families back, which is what they want more than anything.

  • John Yang:

    Wendy, explain that. Separate legal tracks. The parents the children are on separate legal tracks?

  • Wendy Young:

    Yes, the parent is being prosecuted for illegal entry, even though they have exercised their legal right to seek asylum.

    And then they will be placed into deportation proceedings separately from the children, because the children have been redesignated as being unaccompanied, even though they arrived together with their family member. And under our laws, unaccompanied children are placed on a separate legal track.

  • John Yang:

    And then if the parent is sent back, returned to their home country, the child isn't necessarily reunited with the parent?

  • Wendy Young:

    That's exactly right.

    In fact, we have been working with some parents who have been deported back to Central America while their child has remained in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. These parents are frantic.

    It's been weeks since they have had any contact the child. And, of course, once you're back in the home country, it's even more difficult to establish that kind of contact.

  • John Yang:

    And, Amna, as you return to Washington after your trip to the border, you're leaving the El Paso Airport this morning, tell us what you saw.

  • Amna Nawaz:


    This just sort of speaks to the heart of the one of the main frustrations for as journalists, along with anyone else trying to navigate the system, is that there is very little transparency when we request information.

    The colleague you mentioned, Frank Carlson, our producer here, he and I were at the border. We were leaving. And, at the airport, we noticed a group of young men who all had unaccompanied minor bag tags on them and appeared to be escorted a group of similarly clothed adults.

    And so we approached them. And we asked the adults who were with them, can you tell us a little bit about these young guys? They looked anywhere from maybe 9 or 10 years old all the way up to 17 or 18.

    We were given no answers. We were handed a card. And the only reason we know they were in government custody is because of the card. The card had contact information for the Department of Health and Human Services, which we know is the government agency in charge of unaccompanied minors in the United States.

    And so we reached out to them. We left messages. We left e-mails. We got no word back. We reached out to the airlines as well. And, to their credit, the airline representative got back to us very quickly and said, we have been assured by the government that we will not be transporting any children who have been forcibly separated from their parents since the president's executive order was signed.

    So these are very likely children who arrived unaccompanied and we know have been in government custody for years at this point are often transported in this way.

    But the point all of this was, we don't know. We don't get any confirmation from the government. We don't get any response from them. There is not a lot of transparency about the care and custody and well-being of the children who are now being held in our government and in our name.

  • John Yang:

    Amna Nawaz, Wendy Young of Kids in Need of Defense, thank you very much.

  • Wendy Young:

    Thank you.

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