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How the Trump administration is leveraging COVID-19 to tighten immigration

The Trump administration is saying increased security on the U.S.-Mexico border is necessary to prevent the coronavirus' spread. As a result, more than 900 migrant children were deported in March and April shortly after they reached the border -- much more quickly than normal, and without standard safeguards observed. John Yang talks to Caitlin Dickerson of The New York Times.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The coronavirus is changing life as we know it in the U.S., including the Trump administration's immigration policy.

    As John Yang reports, one big shift is in the treatment of migrant children and teenagers.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, The New York Times reports that, in March and April, more than 900 migrant children were deported by the Trump administration shortly after they reached the U.S. border. That's much sooner in the process than before the pandemic.

    It's part of a new, stepped-up border security policy that the Department of Homeland Security says is intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

    Caitlin Dickerson covers immigration for The New York Times, and she joins us now from her home in New York.

    Caitlin, thanks so much for being with us.

    What's the difference between the way these children are being treated now and the way they were being treated before the pandemic?

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    Sure.

    So, historically, when a child or a teenager, anybody under 18, arrived at the American border without an adult guardian, they were allowed into the country and taken through a pretty lengthy process in which they were assigned a social worker, they were sent to a shelter that was specifically designed to house children.

    And that social worker helps determine whether or not they have a legal case to remain in the United States. If the child isn't — or doesn't qualify for one of those legal protections that our country offers, then they are returned to their home country, but only after a safety plan has been put into place.

    So, the American government makes contact with family in the home country and makes sure that the child has a safe place to go back to, which, as you can imagine, is especially important, when a child is returning to a dangerous country.

    Both of those things aren't happening now. So, rather than being allowed into the country, children are being returned right away. And even those kids who were already in the United States before this stepped-up border enforcement began, when those kids are being deported now, it's happening much more quickly and without that safety planning ahead of time, which means some kids have ended up back in home country.

    Their family doesn't know they're there until they arrive, and the child may not have anywhere to go.

  • John Yang:

    You start your tale with a 10-year-old boy, Gerson Rodriguez, who is about to set across the Rio Grande with a stranger, not his family.

    Can you summarize what happened to him?

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    Absolutely.

    So, right, Gerson is 10. He had been in Mexico with his mother since last October. They fled Honduras because of his mother's partner, who had been abusive to both of them, who had withheld food from them and who had hit them.

    And so, like so many other families, they went to Mexico. They applied for asylum in the United States, but they were enrolled in the Migrant Protection Protocols that the Trump administration created. That's the program that requires asylum seekers to wait on the Mexican side of the border until their cases are adjudicated.

    And that didn't feel safe enough to Gerson's mother. As you probably know, many of the migrants who are waiting on the Mexican side of the border have been subjected to kidnapping, to extortion. It's very dangerous. They were living outdoors in a tent camp.

    And so his mother decided the safest thing she felt to do was to send her 10-year-old son across the border alone, so that he could go and live with his uncle in Houston. But that didn't happen.

    She didn't realize that this Trump administration policy had been implemented. And so she heard nothing from her son for six days. When she finally did hear from him, she learned that he was back in Honduras, that he'd been deported there, again, without anyone in his family being informed.

  • John Yang:

    And what's the Trump administration's rationale for this new policy?

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    So, this policy came down through an executive order invoking the power of the surgeon general to prevent people from entering the United States because of the threat of a very serious disease or illness.

    In this case, we're talking, of course, about the coronavirus pandemic. But important context to note here is that this idea of using the public health authority to shut down the border is not something that originated as a novel response to this unprecedented pandemic.

    It's actually something that Stephen Miller, who's President Trump's chief adviser on immigration, had come up with years ago, shortly after President Trump took office. He'd been looking for a way to implement it. And, as my reporting has shown, he got that opportunity with the coronavirus pandemic.

  • John Yang:

    And some House Democrats are saying that this violates U.S. law with this new policy.

    What's the — what's behind that argument?

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    What they're talking about is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. It's a decades-old law that's designed to protect this very population that we're talking about, kids who come to the United States on their own.

    And it's not hard to understand why special protections have been put in place, when you think about what it's like for someone as young as Gerson, for example, a 10-year-old, to be traversing international borders on their own. They really are targets for exploitation of any kind.

    It doesn't always happen, but because of the vulnerability that they face from people who may want to kidnap them or may want to extort their families for money and do a number of things, this law was created to try to prevent that from happening and to give them two opportunities, actually, legally, they're entitled to, to apply for asylum to try to win protection in the United States, and basically to make sure that there's no provision of the immigration law that could offer them protection before they're actually sent home.

    And it's also, of course, designed to ensure that, when the United States does send them home, that they're not put in harm's way.

  • John Yang:

    Caitlin Dickerson of The New York Times, thanks so much.

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    Thank you.

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