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Behind the record number of children detained at the U.S.-Mexico border this year

According to new data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, over 850,000 migrants were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal 2019. The figure is more than double the previous year’s total, and it includes a record number of unaccompanied migrant children -- many more than previously understood. Amna Nawaz joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the "unsustainable" pattern and DHS leadership.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We have a clearer picture tonight about what's unfolded at the U.S. southern border over the past year.

    New numbers reveal a record number of migrants apprehended there in fiscal year 2019. U.S. Customs and Border Protection says that total was more than 850,000 migrants, more than double the year before. That includes a record number of unaccompanied migrant children detained by U.S. border officials.

    For a closer look at those numbers and the turmoil at the top of the agency responsible for securing that border, I'm joined by Amna Nawaz, who has been following this story for us for a long time.

    So, Amna, eye-popping numbers. What do we know about what's driving it?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes, it's a stunning number. We have been reporting on this for a while.

    We know, for most of those families, they're coming from Central America, from three countries, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, largely fleeing economic instability and violence.

    But take a look at how these numbers break down, Judy. When you look at that one big eye-popping number, about 300,000 of those migrants were single adults. The largest group, however, was family units. That was almost 500,000.

    That's adults traveling with children. And then this unaccompanied minor children — number, rather, over 76,000.

    Two things to point out. That family units number, that is what has been taxing the system. Our system is not designed to handle families and children in that way. And that unaccompanied minors number, that, of course, is children arriving largely unaccompanied. That's also a record.

    That's higher than any number even that the Obama administration had to manage. And they had their own surges they managed in 2014 and 2016. A lot of people are asking, what happened to all those children? It's important to point out, they go into the care of another government agency.

    And that agency said they have also had a record number of sponsors coming forward. That's vetted family and friends who come forward to claim the children. So most of those children are now with those sponsors.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, again, this is a — and, again, you have reported on it.

    This is an agency, a system that was never designed to handle families, to handle children. These numbers appear to be unsustainable. What's going to happen?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, look, it's absolutely unsustainable. It's unfair for the Customs and Border Patrol officers on the front lines. It's unsafe for a lot of the families coming through the system.

    But it's important to point out those numbers have been coming down in recent months. If you take a look at the southwest border apprehensions over the last five months, may of the last fiscal year was a high point, over 130,000 migrants crossing.

    That came down month after month, until September, last year, the last month of this fiscal year, down to about 40,000. That's a low for the entire year.

    Why is it coming down? A combination of a couple of things. One, the Trump administration has put into place a lot of new policies that prevent people from coming into the U.S. And they have struck deals with those countries of origin to keep people from leaving.

    That's kind of set off a whole another whole set of concerns about, you know, whether people are allowed under human rights law to leave their country or even to pass through Mexico on the way here. We know it's also unsafe in a lot of those Mexican border towns where they're now being held.

    Just over the weekend, there was a 2-year-old boy who was killed in a hit-and-run. He and his family were waiting to legally enter the United States. And according to the National Organization for Migration, he's the 20th child to die at the U.S.-Mexico border in the last year.

    So, it's not good conditions people are being forced to wait in.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, so concerning.

    And, meanwhile, while all this is going on, Amna, the agency that oversees all this, the Department of Homeland Security, one of the largest agencies in the federal government, hundreds of thousands of employees, they have had an acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan.

    He announced this month, earlier, he's leaving the job. What do we know about what's next?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes, his last day is supposed to be tomorrow.

    He will likely have to stay because the president has not yet named a successor. He's run into one problem under the Federal Vacancies Act, which is that someone can't hold two acting positions at the same time under DHS.

    The top two candidates for this role, Ken Cuccinelli and Mark Morgan, are both acting heads of DHS agencies at the moment. They're ideologically aligned with the president. And one of them may end up getting the job. But, right now, it's a difficulty because of the Federal Vacancies Act.

    But when you spoke about the turmoil at the top, it's worth a look back. Under this president, there have already been four heads of DHS, John Kelly, Elaine Duke, Kirstjen Nielsen, Kevin McAleenan.

    We do not know — for the broad mandate DHS has, beyond just immigration, we have no idea who is going to be running it next.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To go from acting to acting to acting. What do we say?

    Amna Nawaz, thank you very much.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thanks, Judy.

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