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Without prior planning, Trump administration faces massive challenge to reunite migrant families

A federal judge on Tuesday ordered the government to reunite immigrant families who had been separated at the border within 30 days, or sooner for children younger than 5. But that timeline may be hard to meet, raising the stakes for the Trump administration. John Yang gets analysis John Sandweg, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    There are still many questions about the Trump administration's immigration policy and what it means for the children separated from their families.

    Today, the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services is launching a wide-ranging review of conditions at shelters for migrant children. This follows a federal judge ordering that all kids affected be reunited with their parents within 30 days.

    John Yang explores why that timeline might be hard to meet.

  • John Yang:

    Amna, the judge's strongly worded ruling raises the stakes for the Trump administration on this issue.

    To talk more about it, we are joined by John Sandweg. He spent five years in the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, including serving as acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

    John Sandweg, thanks for joining us.

  • John Sandweg:

    Thanks very much.

  • John Yang:

    The judge set a very tight time frame on this, that all children under 5 have to be reunited in five days, all children in 30 days, and all children have to be able to talk to their parents in 10 days.

    Are they going to be able to do this?

  • John Sandweg:

    Provided they release the parents from custody on an expedited basis, it shouldn't be a problem.

    There are still going to be some logistical difficulties to work through, but the key is to release the parents, the 2,000 parents who are being held, to release them as quickly as possible.

  • John Yang:

    But that means taking them out of the criminal process, taking the charges against them?

  • John Sandweg:

    Well, believe it or not, because the criminal process is actually pretty short in duration, the charges here are misdemeanor charges.

    In my experience, and based on what I have been reading, the judges who do these what we call streamline prosecution, the misdemeanor illegal entry prosecutions, generally would give time served.

    So by the time you actually see the judge and plead guilty, the judge is going to sentence, and that's it, your sentence is complete at that point. They are going to give you time served for time you were in custody.

  • John Yang:

    The judge in his decision said that, in a conference with the government lawyers as recently as last week, they said they had no plans in place for reconciliation, for reuniting these families.

  • John Sandweg:

    I think the administration was trying to have their cake and eat it, too.

    They wanted to continue to detain the parents, but once the kids are put into that foster system, there was just no way they could have brought the kids back to the parents and continued the detention.

    So I think what you were seeing was, the administration didn't have a plan by which they could continue the detention of the parents and still keep the president's promise of reuniting the kids.

    I think that's why the judge's order is so important. It's going to force the administration to recognize the realities and release the parents, so they can reunify with their children.

  • John Yang:

    They also said — the government told the judge that they do have a system in place for communications, to allow the parents to communicate with the children.

    But if that's the case, why is it so hard? Why are parents saying that they are having so much difficulty finding out where their children are and talking to them?

  • John Sandweg:

    Because, John, this was never done before.

    Never have we intentionally separated family units in immigration. We would do it only in the rarest of circumstance, where you had, say, a dangerous felon and somebody of that nature, and you otherwise had no choice for public safety but to do it.

    But when you implement a massive change like this, where you have — you're taking families and ripping them apart, there was no government agency whose job it was to track the movement of the parents and the movement of the children.

    And I think so almost all of these logistical problems we're seeing are a function of the fact that we never had a need to kind of provide communications between kids and parents before because we never separated them before.

  • John Yang:

    To that point, the judge said that the government tracks the property of these parents better than they're tracking the children of these parents.

  • John Sandweg:

    Yes.

    Well, again, listen, it's been a — of course, you safeguard the property of individuals you detain. And that's been a function that the government has done since — for decades, of course, longer than that.

    But, again, what we did here was — what's frustrating to me is, I understand the frustrations of people who say we have got to end catch and release. I get it. There is a simple way to handle that, through the hiring of immigration judges.

    But to implement a massive sea change in our policy and our procedures without engaging in the planning, identifying those questions of who, what when, and where, who's going to track the children, who's going to track the parents, what's our reunification plan, do we have the budget to do this, all of those questions that the judge is talking about could have and should have been answered — they were very foreseeable.

    They should have been answered before you implement the policy change.

  • John Yang:

    And help me understand also this process and how this system works.

    The judge said that parents can no longer be deported without their children. How common is that, that parents are sent back to their home countries, yet their children remain in detention in the United States?

  • John Sandweg:

    Prior to the implementation of this policy, it was generally very, very rare.

    The policy in place before wasn't to let these people go permanently. It would be just be to keep the family unit intact. So they stay in deportation proceedings, they have an immigration hearing, where they are going to be ordered deported potentially, but they do it as a family group together.

    But the administration — the idea was, OK, if we split the kids apart from the parents, the parents, because they're detained, they will be fast-tracked in the immigration court. Detained cases move much more quickly than non-detained cases.

    The problem was, the kids, because they are not traditionally detained, they are in a foster facility, they go on a much slower pace. So we were starting to see that, in the very beginning of the process, but had this gone on, I think you would have seen almost all of these parents would have been deported while their kids were still going through the separate legal process that moves much slower.

  • John Yang:

    But eventually would they be reunited with their parents, sent back to the home country as well?

  • John Sandweg:

    Thankfully, we're not going to have to answer that question.

    I will tell you, it's much more difficult than I think people realized, because it could be years, three, four years before the child has an immigration — a hearing before an immigration judge where they could be ordered deported.

    Some of these kids would actually be eligible because they would be legally deemed to have been abandoned by their parents. They would have become eligible potentially for green cards in the United States.

    I think we would have seen, had this program — this policy continued, we would have seen large number of these kids and their parents permanently separated.

  • John Yang:

    As someone who's spent time in the federal government and was an administrator in the federal government, I want your reaction to this.

    The judge in this order called the circumstances chaotic. He said they belie measured and ordered governance, which is central to the concept of due process enshrined in our Constitution.

    What do you make of this, as someone who's worked in the government? What do you make of this?

  • John Sandweg:

    It's bad government, is what this was.

    Look, setting aside your views on, hey, we should be tougher at the border, or we should even separate parents, I think every single taxpayer could agree that we need to have a government that's run competently.

    And the problem is, you implement a radical policy shift like this without consulting the career folks who have been working on border security issues and know the law, and know the logistical hurdles, know the budgetary constraints, and get their input, and then devise a plan to deal with the kind of — the chaos, potential chaos, you're shorting the taxpayers here.

    So, regardless of what you think of the policy, I think everybody should agree that this was incompetently managed. And it doesn't appear to me — look, I spent hundreds of hours in meetings at the White House where we're going through all the budgeting, all the logistics, whenever we were going to implement a major policy, with all the other agencies that are impacted.

    The White House brings them together. None of that appears to have happened in this particular case.

  • John Yang:

    John Sandweg, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, thank you very much.

  • John Sandweg:

    Thank you.

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