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After policy reversal, hundreds of detained migrant children could be released

Hundreds of migrant children could be released from government custody as the Trump administration relaxes requirements for the adults sponsoring them. The shift was followed by an Associated Press report that some shelters house more than 1,000 children. Michelle Brane of the Women’s Refugee Commission joins Amna Nawaz to explain why the change is an improvement and what challenges still remain.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hundreds of immigrant children could soon be released from U.S. government custody after a policy reversal from the Trump administration.

    Amna Nawaz reports on all this, as the federal government continues to grapple with large numbers of migrant children being kept in shelters along the border.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Hundreds of migrant children will be released to their U.S. sponsors, after the Department of Health and Human Services announced they will change the way they conduct background checks.

    The announcement comes as a new report from the Associated Press finds many migrant children are being housed in shelters with more than 1,000 other children.

    Michelle Brane is the director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women's Refugee Commission, an advocacy group. She joins me now.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Michelle Brane:

    Thank you. Glad to be here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let's talk about this Associated Press investigation first.

    There's not a lot of transparency into this shelter system. We're talking about a network of over 100 shelters that the U.S. government works with to house shelter migrant kids. The key finding in this, though, is just that, that these kids are staying in places with lots, hundreds, if not thousands of other kids.

    What's your reaction to that?

  • Michelle Brane:

    Look, we have known for a long time that that is problematic.

    Every sort of social study about the welfare of children who are institutionalized shows that larger institutions are inappropriate for children. And that's why, in the United States, for decades now, we have been moving towards smaller foster care or small shelters for the care of children.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We also know that they have been — we have more migrant children in our care than ever before, right, about 15,000. They are staying longer as well, right? The average is now up to 90 days in these places.

    What's the concern associated with that? Do we have any idea what the impact is?

  • Michelle Brane:

    Again, all studies around the world have shown that the custody and detention of children is detrimental to their development and to their health.

    So we have known — it's no secret — that this is not a good situation for children. And we should be moving in the opposite direction of what we're moving in.

    You know, 10 years ago, we did a study looking at the custody of children and looked at over 42 facilities. And, at that time, our concern was — one of our biggest concerns was that they were looking at institutions that would hold over 250 kids at a time.

    We're now well over 1,000 in these facilities. That is simply the wrong direction to be moving in.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, there has been what some people say is progress from the government. Just this week, they're announcing they're going to roll back some of the requirements for background checks that they place on people coming forward to get kids out of this system, right?

    What do you make of that?

  • Michelle Brane:

    Well, this is definitely a move in the right direction. This administration instituted a memorandum of agreement between our ORR, who cares for children, and ICE, the enforcement agency.

    Unfortunately, it's only a partial change in that policy. The real problem is that information submitted by sponsors is shared with ICE. And we are seeing in, in fact, many families who come forward to get their children who are apprehended after coming forward.

    So I worry that that's going to continue, and that will continue to discourage families from coming forward.

    But, in the meantime, for children who have had somebody come forward to claim them, hopefully, this will speed up the process of reunifying them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, let me ask you this, and then reaction to maybe something we will listen to.

    This is a senior official at the agency responsible for the care of these unaccompanied children. It's a woman named Lynn Johnson. And this is what she had to say when she was asked about this change in their procedure yesterday.

  • Lynn Johnson:

    And we're finding that it's not adding anything to the protection or the safety for these children. The children should be home with their parents. The government makes lousy parents.

    But I think what weighed more heavily was that I don't want to be causing any additional harm by keeping kids in care longer than they need to, when they have a thoroughly vetted parent waiting for them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, the government makes lousy parents — that's a pretty strong statement, especially when you take into account the fact the government is still running what's known as sort of an emergency influx shelter called Tornillo, right? We call it a tent city, because that's basically what it is.

    Are there any changes on the horizon for that?

  • Michelle Brane:

    Well, that was opened as an emergency facility, and it was not supposed to be open for very long.

    So, I hope that this change in policy will facilitate the release of most of those children, and that that facility will be able to be shut down.

    But we will have to see, because, as I said, I'm concerned that there still will remain many children whose parents are afraid to come forward.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, there's another issue I want to ask you about related to unaccompanied minors.

    You are just back from the border. You were interviewing children there who are unaccompanied, who are waiting basically to enter the U.S.

    And we're seeing some reports that some of those children have been turned away at the border. What did you see yourself when you were there?

  • Michelle Brane:

    Absolutely. That's exactly what I saw, not just some of those children, Amna.

    All children, anybody who approaches the port of entry seeking protection or asylum are turned away and told to get in a line. This line is not an official line. There's no formal process for it. It is run by migrants themselves.

    And children who are turned away just like everybody else are not able to get on this list. They're not able to get in line, for some complicated reasons involving the Mexican process. But, as a result, children are in this revolving door or in this real limbo, where they literally — they can't approach the border, they can't get in line for the border, and they're not offered any options in Mexico for protection in the United States, and very often offered return to their home countries.

    And so, really, in turning children away, the United States is violating multiple laws. They're violating the International Refugee Convention. They're violating U.S. immigration law. And they're violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which is — was in part specifically created to address this problem of children who are seeking protection at our border.

    This problem doesn't need any law to fix it. It doesn't need any real shift, except for the U.S. government complying with its obligations under law to accept children who are seeking protection at our border, and put them through a process in the United States.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And part of the concern, my understanding is, that those are some dangerous situations for those kids to be in while they're awaiting entry.

    Just this week, we saw a report about two teenagers who were unaccompanied who were actually murdered on the Mexican side of the border.

    But I want to ask you about another tragic story we have been following. And that is the death of the 7-year-old Guatemalan girl Jakelin Caal in U.S. Border Patrol custody.

    Her lawyers actually held a press conference earlier today. Just take a listen to what they had to say.

  • Lynn Coyle:

    We need an inquiry to look at the actions taken or not taken to understand whether it met our constitutional standards, not the standards set out by Border Patrol. And that that's one of our very, very serious concerns.

    Her life may have been saved very early on in her detention with a face-to-face screening through a structured questionnaire. And the decision as to what to do with her should be made by a health care professional, a qualified professional.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, Michelle, there are still a lot of questions, right, about the circumstances surrounding her death, but also about our responsibility, our country's responsibility to children who come across the border.

    What is that responsibility? Can we expect Border Patrol to be acting like emergency medical personnel?

  • Michelle Brane:

    It's a very good question, because, for years now, we have been saying that Border Patrol cannot possibly — officers who are tasked with the very serious and dangerous jobs of protecting our borders, dealing with drug traffickers, organized crime, others crossing for nefarious purposes, should not then have to spend time baby-sitting children.

    We need child welfare professionals. We need people there whose job it is and who have the skills to care for these kids. You know, 10 years ago, we didn't see this many children and families crossing. And while the numbers overall of people crossing our border have dropped, the percentage of those who are women and children has gone up to now over 50 percent.

    Over 50 percent of those apprehended are families or children who are unaccompanied. It is time to have actual people on staff in those circumstances to address their needs.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Michelle Brane, the Women's Refugee Commission, thank you for being here.

  • Michelle Brane:

    Thank you.

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