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‘Family Separation 2.0’ offers a difficult choice for migrant parents

A few months after the Trump administration was forced to end the infamous “zero tolerance” policy that led to thousands of child migrants being separated from their parents, the Department of Homeland Security is considering a new policy that would require parents choose between keeping their children with them in detention or be separated. Judy Woodruff speaks to Amna Nawaz.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now let's turn to immigration and the president's approach to it, which is once again stirring up concern as the midterm elections approach.

    U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested within 16,000 family members in September, according to a new report from The Washington Post. That is a record high since President Trump officially ended a policy of separating families at the border.

    The relative spike in border crossings come as the administration weighs new steps to discourage and deter cross-border flow, including what some are calling family separation 2.0.

    With the latest on what we know, I'm joined by Amna Nawaz.

    Amna, you have been following all this.

    So, since the president did announce officially in July that this policy was ending, we know the administration has been working, what, with the ACLU, other groups to try to take care of these children.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But do we know — having done that, do we know how many are still in custody?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There's still a few to go, for sure.

    And, remember, even before the president ordered the end of family separation, it took a federal judge coming in and saying, you have to stop this and you have to reunite these families. That was June 26.

    It's been 16 weeks, and there are still children in U.S. government care and custody they're trying to reunite.

    How many? Well, the government's own numbers say there are 66 kids in their care today that they are currently working to reunite, one under the age of 5 as well, we should point out.

    Why are they still in custody? Well, for the vast majority of them, 50 of those children, their parents were already deported. And that presents a huge logistical challenge. First, you have to find the parents. Then you have to contact them. Then you have to ask if they want their children sent back to the same country they were fleeing.

    The government and the ACLU are working through that right now. But it's also disturbing to point out the ACLU says there are still five children whose parents they have been unable to contact. We're talking about five kids who could be permanently orphaned as a result of U.S. policy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, 2,500 or so originally. They're down to 66. Clearly, there's been some — a lot of progress, but they still have work to do.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    They do.

    And it's important to point out, look, 66 kids, they say they're still working to reunite. Our review of the numbers show there's another 250 children still in government care who they are not working to reunite for a number of reasons.

    And those reasons raise some more questions. These are cases in which they were separated from someone other than a parent, say, a grandparent or an older sibling, cases in which the government says the parent is unfit to be reunited, but they won't provide a lot of details, or cases in which the parent was deported, and then the government said, well, look, the parent, we contacted them, and they said they don't want the child brought back to the same country in which that they were fleeing the conditions in the first place.

    We should also say immigration advocates on the front lines, they're worried the government's under-reporting some of the separated family numbers. They're basing that on what they have heard and seen on the front lines. And the government's own watchdog agency, Homeland Security's watchdog agency, last month issued a pretty damning report slamming the government for the inconsistency in numbers and the lack of transparency.

    That's in what they were giving their own investigators.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And there is confusion, because you said the 66, but then, as you said, there's still others who are…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Still in government care.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … still in government care.

    So, the president was asked about all this yesterday.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He did an interview with the Associated Press.

    He seemed to say that most of these children who had come across the border had either come alone or they were with smugglers. And he went on to say that this family separation policy was meant to be a deterrent.

    What does the evidence show? Has it been a deterrent?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, the president's absolutely right that the government right now has thousands of migrant children in their care and custody, and that the vast majority of them arrived alone.

    Those kids tend to be older. They tend to have been sent away from economic uncertainty or violence. They tend to arrive kind of knowing what to expect. They have contact information of family members. They know they will go into a shelter and then be reunited.

    The president is wrong, though, to indicate that the majority of the children that they separated under zero tolerance, that the majority of them came with smugglers or traffickers. That's just not true. And the government's own numbers bear that out.

    The president is also wrong in his apparent belief that family separation worked as a deterrent. The numbers don't show that. You talked about earlier the latest border crossings actually show a short-term spike.

    And I say short-term because important to remember in all of this is that, historically, border crossings are at a low. If you take a look at a graph like this that goes back to 2000, over the last 20 years or so, look, 20 years ago, border crossings month by month, around 70,000, 80,000, sometimes 200,000 a month.

    So, today, 15,000, 16,000 sounds like a lot, but it's still a historic low.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, finally and just quickly, we are starting to hear about another policy the administration is considering. We called it maybe a 2.0.

    What do we know about it?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, last week, there was a report the government is considering putting a choice before parents when they cross the border, and basically saying, look, you can either keep your child with you in federal detention, which is not designed to house children, waive their protection under a child welfare law, or willingly be separated, let your child be taken from you and go into a government shelter that's designed for children.

    Now, I asked a DHS official about this and was told, look, we're going to do whatever we need to do to humanely enforce the law, to secure our borders, and that they will be looking at a range of options.

    We should point out this is a policy they actually floated back in July. They put it before the judge who was overseeing reunification. So the government feels like they have got a judge's sign-off. If they need to use this, they will.

    We should also say immigration advocates say, if they decide to put it in place, there's going to be a flurry of litigation, similar to what we saw after the original family separation policy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much to keep track of, and really important to continue to follow this.

    Amna Nawaz, thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thanks, Judy.

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