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The logistical hurdles hindering migrant family reunification

More than 2,000 children who have been separated from their families at the border in recent weeks and placed in government-run or contracted shelters are still waiting to be reunited. Bob Carey, the former director of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, the division currently caring for the children, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss the logistical challenges.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, the challenges of reuniting migrant families that have been separated.

    Earlier this week, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to stop separating those children from their parents and to reunite those already in custody.

    Today, a White House spokeswoman said the president believes the judge's order must be lifted, because, he said, it endangers national security when immigrant families illegally cross the border.

    But, for now, the judge's order must be dealt with.

    Amna Nawaz looks at the difficulties of doing so, given the present policies and situation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There are still more than 2,000 children who have been separated from their families at the border in recent weeks and placed in government-run or contracted shelters.

    The federal judge ruled that the administration must reunite families with children under 5 within 14 days, and families with older children within 30 days. Those children are currently in the care of a particular division of the Health and Human Services Department called the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR.

    Bob Carey ran that office at the end of the Obama administration from 2014 until President Trump's inauguration.

    While separation policies have changed, Carey is knowledgeable about how the agency works, and joins me now.

    Bob Carey, thanks for making the time.

    I want to start with some of the countless reports we have gotten from down along the border, some of the things I saw firsthand in my week there about how difficult it is to connect parents with children in the system.

    What's your understanding, based on — you know how the system works. Why is that so hard right now?

  • Bob Carey:

    Well, it's in part because the system that ORR oversees was set up to reunite adolescents for the most part who arrived unaccompanied to the United States with family members who are already present in the United States.

    And what you have now is children, often young children, often tender-age, under the age of 12, who have been forcibly separated from their parents. So it's a different system. It requires communication between Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Department of Homeland Security, ICE, CBP, which effected the separation.

    So, it's a different system. It requires cooperation between different government agencies. And that requires leadership.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And so what you're saying here is that leadership isn't there? Where exactly is the system falling down?

  • Bob Carey:

    Well, I think it's hard to say because it's — I'm not inside of it.

    But I know that the systems that are in place are to track children and then reunite them with parents. It's a very different system when you have parents who are now in detention who do not know where their children are. Some of those children are nonverbal. They're not able to articulate who they are, where they're going, what their situation is.

    They're deeply traumatized. They have been forcibly separated from the only caregiver in many instances they have ever known. So there are a lot of systems problems that are compounding the humanitarian issues.

    And, also, these decisions to separate children from parents were made quickly at the highest level of government. And it's evident that it was done without any pre-planning for how the children and the parents would be reunited.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let me ask you now. And I started to walk you through in sort of a ticktock.

    I want to make sure we cover what we know and what we don't yet know.

  • Bob Carey:


  • Amna Nawaz:

    But this reunification process that is now being ordered, that we're seeing how it plays out, let me walk through what we know about it. Help me understand where the obstacles are in each of these steps.

    Obviously, first, you have to find the child in the system. We know or believe that there is a central database. So, why is that such a problem, finding kids in the first place?

  • Bob Carey:

    It shouldn't be a problem to find the child in the ORR system. The database works. It can find where children are pretty quickly.

    But part of the problem is notifying the parent, finding the parent, connecting the systems between the two federal agencies, so that the parent can find out where the child is, and then figuring out a way that they can be reunited, because many of these parents, if not most of them, are in a detention facility.

    And that's inherently problematic to reunite. It's paramount that children and parents be reunited, but sending a child into a detention facility or a prison-like setting that doesn't have the ability to accommodate their needs, that's not secure or safe for them, is a problem both from an operational standpoint and also from a legal, humanitarian standpoint.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So the parent or a family sponsor would have to step up. They have to apply, from thank understanding, right, for reunification. They have to be vetted. Where's the problem or the holdup there?

  • Bob Carey:

    Well, you know, a week ago, Secretary Azar, the secretary of health and human services, announced an emergency task force that was being created to respond to this crisis and rectify these problems.

    You know, and a week later, nothing actionable or concrete is known about the action — the moves of that body. So — but there do need to be steps taken to streamline the reunification processes. For instance, background checks are now required if the sponsor or the mother or father is released to a family member.

    There now need to be background checks on all family — all people in those households, fingerprints, which take 20 days currently to process. So that's a problem. And that's a new requirement that the administration put in place, that all these family members need to be fingerprinted.

    They are now charging parents for the travel of children who are being reunited. That could be waived. I think it's also unconscionable that you're charging a parent to be reunited, when the U.S. government has forcibly separated the parent and child.

    So there are a whole host of measures that could be taken to streamline the current systems, but they — I don't know that those are taking place. I have heard, as of today, they're still charging parents for airfare. They may not have the means to pay for those.

    So, they're also — where are the parents going to be placed, or are they going to be released, such that they can be reunited in an appropriate setting with the child? So I think there are a lot of logistical coordination issues.

    Obviously, these plans were put in place without consultation with the different agencies, without planning as to how families that were being separated were going to be reunited. It's not clear that the record-keeping in the federal agencies, particularly Homeland Security, was accurate.

    The judge in his orders noted that the agency appears to be better able to track people's possessions than they are their children.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about the reunification now that has been ordered by the judge.

    You saw that timeline, 14 days for kids under the age of 5, 30 days for 5 and older. Knowing what you know about the system, can they actually meet that requirement?

  • Bob Carey:

    They can. It would be a stretch, and it would require additional resources and a lot of strategic planning and coordination and leadership.

    It would require guidance from the highest levels of government. The same high levels of government that put this plan into action should — to separate families hopefully can develop a plan to reunite them on a timely basis.

    But it requires human resources, it requires system changes, modifications to databases, streamlining of the processes that are used to ensure that the child is being reunited with the right person, and that it's happening in a safe and secure way.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bob Carey, thank you for your time.

  • Bob Carey:

    Thank you.

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