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The number of unaccompanied minors in U.S. detention has exploded. Here’s why

The number of unaccompanied immigrant children in federal custody have reached their highest levels ever, according to government figures. According to one report, the number has grown five-fold in the last year. What does the staggering increase mean for the children? Judy Woodruff gets an update from Amna Nawaz.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Government figures show the number of accompanied immigrant children in federal custody has been growing in recent months and, according to one report, has now grown five-fold over the last year, reaching their highest levels ever.

    Amna Nawaz has been following the story. And she's here with the latest.

    So, Amna, this New York Times report saying the number of these immigrant children is — now has skyrocketed. You, we have done a lot of reporting on these separated children. Are these the same children? What are you finding?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes, it's important to separate out here.

    Those separated children, they represent a very small slice of all the unaccompanied minors in U.S. government custody. Now, the vast majority of these kids, they're older, slightly older. They usually arrive alone. And they also usually arrive with an intent of reuniting with a family member inside the U.S.

    Now, that New York Times report you mentioned, they said a year ago — well, a little over a year ago, May 2017, there were 2,400 kids in custody, and they have seen a five-fold increase.

    Now, that increase is what is most striking. And I want to take a closer look at some of the numbers we have seen, because we were given firsthand look at some of the internal documents from the government.

    This is just over the last three months here, Judy. The total number of unaccompanied children in shelters in July, 11,978, in August, 12,350, and in September — this is the number we got from the last 24 hours — 12,869 children in custody.

    The government wouldn't give us comments on specific numbers. And they say the numbers change on a daily basis, based on arrivals and how fast they can place kids out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what is behind this increase? Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security puts out this — these numbers saying these are the highest family crossings in — on record for the month of August.

    Is this just a trend? Is that what's going on?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Partly.

    I mean, look, over the last six years, the numbers of unaccompanied children have been going up. There was a huge spike after 2012. Last year, though, in fiscal year 2017, they went down.

    And since then, people who look at the numbers say they have kind of stayed steady. And that's largely because the things that people are fleeing, the kids are fleeing in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the violence and uncertainty, those really haven't changed.

    So there's two other things that offer some insight into what's really going on here. One is the discharge rate. The documents we saw show that has gone down, meaning they're moving kids out of the system much more slowly. At the same time, the average length of stay, that's gone up.

    There's some other numbers I want to take a look at here. So two years ago, the average child was staying in U.S. custody 40 days. Now they're staying an average of 50 — sorry — in 2017, it was 51 days. That has now gone up to 59 days in custody.

    So we asked some former government officials about what's going on here. They point to Trump administration policies. There were two new policies that went into effect, one which they said, look, anyone who's in the household that wants to get a child back in their custody, everyone has to submit data and fingerprinting.

    That can take a long time. They also said all this information is going to be going to ICE for enforcement purposes. So it had a chilling effect. People are less likely to come forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So how is all this affecting the system? How is it affecting the children?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Look, overall, they see the system is stressed. The shelters were not designed to be actually handling this kind of capacity. The last number we saw showed they're at a 93 percent occupancy rate.

    So, 93 percent of all the beds available to them, they are filled. One former official I talked to said, in past years, when they reached around 90 or 91 percent, panic would set it, and they would require multiple agency resources to try to come together and get that number back down to 80 or 85. That was the sweet spot for them.

    But, look, the bigger picture here is, it's bad for the children. There's consensus now that prolonged detention can have trauma, can have a deep impact on these kids.

    And one official actually said, look, the longer these kids sit in the shelters, the greater the chance that something can go wrong.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You had referred, Amna, to previous administrations taking what you called a whole-of-government approach to this.

    How is this administration different?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This government seems to be forcing — or — sorry — rather, focusing much more on getting resources to detention, rather than getting the kids out.

    We have seen that with them wanting to give money to Mexico to help deport people before they get to the U.S. We have seen them move millions of dollars from other agencies to ICE to support additional resources.

    It looks like their approach to children in detention is really — really no different. The difference right now, they're saying — and because, in governments past, they have done this with emergencies. They have ramped up emergency beds. They have nearly doubled the number of shelter beds over the last year available for kids.

    In the past, they say those were emergencies that came to them. This time, they say it's an emergency of the administration's own making.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, again, it's such an important story, following what's happening with these children and families in the United States.

    Amna Nawaz, thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thanks, Judy.

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