The thing that strikes me and that I think strikes anyone else out in the field at the moment is that it’s entirely unclear whether or not the government can comply with this order, so for the judge to say, we want the government to be able to reunite families within 30 days and to give these specific time frames for the government to do this would basically presuppose that the government knows where all of these separated children are, would have the means to connect these children with their parents. And I actually don’t think any of that is clear.
.. I think the government is pretty ill-equipped right now to effectuate these reunifications. And so it really remains to be seen whether or not the terms of this federal order, this judge’s order, can actually be met and executed by the government itself.
GROSS: The head of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, told senators on Tuesday that he could find any child separated from their migrant parents, quote, “within seconds.” He said, there is no reason why any parent would not know where their child is located. He said that within keystrokes, within seconds, he could find any child.
.. you talk to parents who are in detention, who have been in detention in some cases for more than just several weeks but in fact for a few months who have had no contact or extremely limited contact with their children. So anecdotally, that is – you know, what the secretary says is wrong.
.. it’s a little bit misleading even how he’s framed that because basically what’s happened is this. You have parents who have been handled through a separate kind of branch of the federal bureaucracy. You have parents who are first charged with a crime, who are held in the custody of U.S. marshals pending a determination of whether or not they were guilty of that crime of crossing the border illegally. Then when they’re done with that process, they go into immigration detention where they’re held, oftentimes indefinitely, while they wait for an asylum claim to be heard.
.. That’s – they’re in one – they’re sort of siphoned off to one side of the federal bureaucracy. Their kids are in an entirely different area. Their kids are under the care of the Department of Health and Human Services. And so there isn’t any coordination between those two different branches of government. So for the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to say, OK, well, we know where every kid is doesn’t really give us any of the meaningful information that parents are asking about, which is, OK, how do I connect my case to the case of my kid?
The government has all of these kids in its custody, but the parents are completely disconnected from them. And the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t have any truck with the agencies involved in detaining the parents of these kids.
GROSS: So if the agencies got together and said, let’s coordinate, would they have the means to do it?
.. BLITZER: I think whether or not the government can actually reunify families boils down to a question of political will. I think if the government were seriously interested in reuniting parents and kids, it could probably bring that about. One of the problems is that on the side of the Department of Health and Human Services – and more specifically, there’s an office at the Department of Health and Human Services called the Office of Refugee Resettlement. That’s the specific body that is in charge of caring for these kids who have been separated from their parents. That office is not equipped to deal with this kind of problem.
.. what the Office of Refugee Resettlement does is while it’s got these kids in its care, it tries to locate and vet sponsors for these children living in the U.S. so they can place these children with those sponsors. What’s happening here is something different. The process in some ways has been reversed.
These kids have come to the U.S. with their parents. They’ve been separated from their parents at the border. The government treats these kids as though they came to the U.S. alone, so the government effectively treats these children as unaccompanied minors. And so now the Office of Refugee Resettlement has to kind of reorient itself and now place these kids back in the custody of parents from whom they’ve been separated. And so the office isn’t really equipped to deal with that. And what parents are finding is they’re now having to go to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
.. Now, to be clear, if a parent is in detention – if a parent is in immigration detention, that parent can’t easily take a phone call, make a phone call, get paperwork prepared, any of those things. But those parents, in theory – what they have to do is they have to convince the Office of Refugee Resettlement that the Office of Refugee Resettlement in fact has their child. And so the government is now, in some kind of surreal, perverse way, having to scrutinize the claim of a parent who has been separated from his or her kid at the border to ensure that in fact that is the parent of the kid that the government has in its care. And so even if there were the political will to do this, institutionally, there isn’t really the wherewithal to handle this particular kind of problem.
.. GROSS: You’ve spoken to mothers who had their children taken away from them by federal agents. Did the agents make any effort to identify the children and the mother so that they could be reunited? Were IDs taken? Were names taken? Were addresses – any kind of identifying information so that they can be linked up again?
BLITZER: This is one of the big questions. And in my experience, the women I spoke to – and I spoke to a handful of women in different stages of detention – of criminal and immigration detention. None of them had been told anything. None of them were given any information. At a certain point, the Department of Homeland Security, which is in charge of enforcing immigration laws at the border – at a certain point, the Department of Homeland Security seemed to have realized that it made a mistake by not even creating a kind of plan or protocol or tip sheet for parents who were in custody for how they could find their kids.
.. the government created what is essentially a flyer with a list of phone numbers on it – a 1-800 number for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, you know, the numbers of various government agencies that parents could call for advice about how to proceed in locating their kids. That is the extent of it. And the women I speak to have all said to a person that those numbers don’t work from within detention, that they…
.. GROSS: When you say, don’t work, you mean they’re busy or there’s no one – it just rings or it’s a dead phone number.
BLITZER: A mix of things. The problem I hear most often is that there are long wait times. So you call this number, and there might be a 20, 25 minute wait time. And if you’re in immigration detention, you’ve got 15 minutes on the telephone. And so even if these parents can get through to someone on the other end of the line, by the time they start to have a conversation, they have to get off the phone. And they can’t easily take a call back because they’re in immigration detention. And so the fact of this number existing hasn’t really helped them. So what’s happened – the ways in which parents in detention have oftentimes figured out where their children are is through the work of advocates, lawyers whom they’ve met while they’ve been in detention and just through word of mouth from inside detention centers.
.. But this has been the nature of how parents and children are locating each other. It’s been ad hoc. It’s been done through the ingenuity of individual parents in detention. And it’s been facilitated by lawyers and advocates along the border who have essentially filled the void left by the government, which never created a plan for dealing with this problem.
.. you’ve got individual caseworkers at the Office of Refugee Resettlement who are absolutely trying their best to figure out where parents are.
The problem is they can’t see into the Department of Homeland Security, a different federal department, a huge federal department. They can’t see into that department to figure out where the parents are. So they’re kind of on their own. So what’s been happening is you might have an individual caseworker at the Office of Refugee Resettlement who’s got a 5-year-old kid and who is desperate to find that 5-year-old child’s parents but doesn’t have the means to.
.. On the other side, you might have let’s say a deportation officer at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, who’s got a mother in his or her custody who is about to be deported who wants at least to try to reunite the parents before the mother is deported but who can’t figure out where the child is because that officer can’t see into the Department of Health and Human Services.
.. it’s been striking because a lot of these mothers have described to me the elation of caseworkers at the Office of Refugee Resettlement when they hear from a parent and say, oh, my God, finally, it’s you. They’re incredibly relieved because they’ve been, you know, desperate to figure out where the parent is while they’ve got the kid in their care.
.. the Trump administration said, OK, we do have a plan. It’s a plan that the administration described as reunite and remove. And the idea was we will reunite parents and children for the express purpose of deporting them together. And obviously, I mean, there are a whole host of problems with this, but one of them is that you are pressuring parents to wind down their immigration cases just so that they can be reunified with their children.
.. And so there are a lot of parents who have come to the U.S. seeking asylum – legitimately seeking asylum – and in some cases have very strong cases for asylum but because they’ve been separated from their kids, they essentially are under intense pressure to let their asylum claims go in order to find their kids. And the expense, of course, the cost of that is being deported together and essentially abandoning their asylum claim.
.. And so the administration in some ways is holding these children – you know, I’m reluctant to say holding these children hostage but that’s essentially what they’re doing. I mean, they’re using these children as leverage to pressure parents into backing away from asylum claims and just agreeing to deportation in desperation.
.. GROSS: Well, you wrote about one woman who agreed to an early deportation thinking that that would unite her sooner with her son and it didn’t.
BLITZER: That’s a common – and that’s a common occurrence in detention, where parents are just so distraught, so confused, you know, that woman who signed this voluntary departure order which led to her, you know, processing of her deportation papers, she was still so confused about what had happened. Her kid was ripped from her in a Border Patrol holding cell in El Paso. No one explained to her why this was going on, what this meant. A paper was put in front of her. There was no lawyer present. She didn’t entirely know what she was signing. She felt like, well, if at the very least I am cooperative with these people, maybe some good will come of it. Maybe I’ll be able to see my kid quicker. So she signed without even really understanding what it was she was signing or what that would mean for her future prospects with her child.
.. But people who are going through immigration proceedings aren’t given a lawyer. It’s up to them to find a lawyer. And so if they’re in immigration detention and they have to first find a lawyer from inside detention, it’s extremely difficult obviously. And so one of the ways that I’m seeing parents in immigration detention find lawyers to represent them and to help them find their kids has been through word of mouth inside immigration detention facilities.
.. BLITZER: El Paso is especially important because it is where the administration first tested out its zero tolerance and family separation policies in the summer of 2017. So the government officially announced all of this in May, but there were reports for months and months about families who’d been separated at the border. And a lot of those reports came out of this particular patch of the border in West Texas.
And what has since come out is that the administration decided to test out what this would all look like here. And so you’re in a place – sort of in one sense the laboratory for where this policy first began. And it’s now a place that is feeling the current chaos of the administration trying to rejigger the policy in ways that are really acute and dramatic to see.
.. BLITZER: I’ve never in my life seen anything even remotely like this. I mean, I’ve been meeting women who are crying so violently they can barely speak. I’m meeting women whose hands are shaking, who look at me with kind of a vacant gaze. It’s extremely upsetting to see.
.. This is a 9-year-old kid she had been separated from and she hadn’t seen since May 26, so almost a month. And she was just devastated. I mean, she looked physically ill. She hadn’t been sleeping. She looked like a fundamental part of her was missing. It was scary to see, physically.
.. But that morning, she spoke to her kid on the phone. This was for the first time now in close to a month. And it was like she clicked back into being. I’ve never seen anything like this. I mean, it was, like, just by virtue of having spoken to her kid, her eyes kind of started to zero back in on me. Her skin looked different. Her hair just seemed – just every – she seemed revitalized.
.. Obviously, he’s scared. He wants to see his mother. But he told her that three days after they were separated, while he was in government custody, someone hit him because he wasn’t eating, and he wasn’t eating because he was so scared and he was so upset.
So she’s hearing this, and as a mother, this is tearing her apart. At the same time, she is so profoundly relieved that she could even hear his voice that that alone was enough to – it almost gave her the kind of energy to talk to me about the other stuff. So, I mean, what I’m seeing these women go through is – it’s nothing short of torture. I don’t know how else to put it.
.. What are the legal ways to seek asylum if you’re crossing the border from Mexico?
.. BLITZER: There are two ways you can come into the U.S. and seek asylum, essentially. One is through what’s called an official port of entry. So that is, essentially, a government checkpoint. It can be at an international bridge, at a kind of officially designated area, and you would go to officials from Customs and Border Protection, and you’d say, I’m seeking asylum. And they would give you a preliminary screening, and if you pass that screening, you would then be admitted into the country, pending a full hearing before an immigration judge. So that’s one way to do it.
The other way to do it – and, in fact, quite a common way to do it – is for people to cross the border anywhere they can – once they cross the border, to either turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents, or when they’re arrested, tell Border Patrol agents that they seek asylum, and the same process should hold.
.. So what the government has done is it’s trying to discourage people from entering that way, and it is part of a much broader war that the government is waging on asylum in general. So what the government is doing is it’s saying, OK, you’ve crossed the border illegally. You didn’t come through an official port of entry, so what we’re going to do first is we’re going to charge you with a crime. The crime is illegal entry, and you are going to face a judge. You’re going to serve a few days in the custody – in criminal custody, and then once that is done, we will pass you over to immigration authorities, and then you’ll sit in immigration detention. And if you’ve got asylum claim and you want to wait it out, good luck. That’s up to you. Your kid will have been separated from you by then. And you can see – you know, if and when you get an attorney to represent you, you can see whether or not your asylum claim passes muster.
.. And there are backlogs – immense backlogs in the immigration court system, so you’ve got months and months of delays if you want a judge to hear on your asylum claim. And one of the things the Trump administration has been doing for people seeking asylum is it’s saying, we’re going to detain you indefinitely while we wait to see whether or not a judge can rule on your asylum claim. So these parents face months in immigration detention to see whether or not their asylum claim will pass muster, and during that time, their kids are elsewhere.
.. What he doesn’t do at that time – this is last week – is he doesn’t say, our approach, which was called zero tolerance, which was the idea of prosecuting anyone who crossed the border illegally – he didn’t say that that approach was over.
.. By the start of this week, the government said, OK, we’re actually going to end the zero tolerance policy of prosecuting families who cross the border illegally because we don’t have the resources to keep it going.
.. OK, if you’re going to arrest parents and kids and keep them together at the border, where are you going to hold them? And there were no answers to these questions. And so the government kind of had to beat a retreat on that because there were just simply logistical questions about what it would even mean for them to hold parents and children together at the border. So that was early this week.
.. What does international human rights law say about the rights of asylum-seekers? And what does the Constitution say about that?
BLITZER: The current administration has had long-standing plans to dismantle the asylum system. This administration sees asylum law as a giant loophole. That’s the word that the president and the attorney general use to describe how asylum law affects people attempting to cross the border. But there are very specific international laws that dictate, basically, how the government has to treat people who come to the U.S. seeking asylum, fleeing for their lives. And one of those basic tenets is that the government cannot turn away someone and send that person knowingly back into harm’s way if that person goes through the right processes for seeking asylum.
.. And so one of the things that the administration has been doing is it’s been turning people away. And we haven’t – you and I haven’t even been speaking about what’s been going on at official ports of entry. At official ports of entry, you know, the attorney general says, look, if you want to be separated from your kids, do this right. Come to an official port of entry. Try to cross the right way. People are doing that. And Customs and Border Protection officials at the border at these ports of entry are turning people away and saying to asylum-seekers at the border – look, sorry. We just don’t have the resources to process you right now. We just can’t – we just – we’re full. You need to wait it out in Mexico for a little while until the numbers dissipate here and we have the bed space to accommodate you. That’s in violation of international law. That’s in violation of federal law. So that’s going on simultaneously to all of this.
.. There are claims that can be made and that I think are quite persuasive that say, you know, detaining asylum-seekers indefinitely amounts not only to a denial of basic due process rights but is meant to force people out of pursuing asylum claims. And that would also be in violation of international and federal law.
..I mean, it’s obviously chaotic. It’s just one thing after another – an executive order, contradictory statements by the head of Customs and Border Protection and the attorney general. I mean, there’s been every manner of confusion and doublespeak from the administration. But in some ways, describing this all as chaos kind of belies some of the more systematic thinking from inside the administration about the need to dismantle the asylum system as we know it.
.. This is all part and parcel of an agenda that the administration came into office with. And there were – you know, there are documents that show this kind of concerted thinking. There have been meetings within key departments – within the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, at the White House – in which officials discussed exactly this range of possibilities. I mean, there was a meeting a year ago at the Department Homeland Security where each and every one of the things you are seeing right now was broached as a policy proposal.
.. also gang violence. He dismissed that also as grounds for seeking asylum in the U.S. He justified this reasoning by saying, look, neither an abusive spouse or a dangerous gang are, quote, unquote, “state actors,” which is to say, you know, we can’t understand these threats as technically qualifying as legitimate threats under asylum law.
.. It’s impossible to calculate how many lives will be affected by a decision like that. I mean, tens of thousands might be lowballing it.
.. 90 percent of the cases I get that I refer on to a judge as being legitimate claims that a judge should hear – 90 percent of those cases involve either domestic violence or gang violence as the grounds for someone seeking asylum. So you can imagine – if 90 percent of those cases now don’t have the same basis that they did before Jeff Sessions’ decision, they’re just going to be countless people whose lives are put at risk because of Jeff Sessions’ decision.
.. you’ve said that you think the Trump administration has manufactured the current immigration crisis. What do you mean?
.. BLITZER: The numbers of people crossing the border have gone up in recent months compared to kind of where they were when Trump first took office. But if you pan out and look at these numbers in full context, the number of people attempting to cross the border right now, the southern border, it’s not terribly high. And it’s basically what it was at the end of the Obama administration. And so what we’re seeing right now is the administration talking about a crisis that it needs to solve at the border. That crisis is entirely of the Trump administration’s own making.
And so what’s been going on with parents and kids, all of these questions of, well, where do you hold all these people who you’re prosecuting? The government is reeling because it doesn’t have the resources to stand up detention centers in time. This is why you’re seeing news about tent cities. This is why you’re seeing news about Immigration and Customs Enforcement trying to enlist criminal penal facilities to hold inmates temporarily who’ve been apprehended at the border.
All of this stuff, all of the chaos you’re seeing, what is a crisis now is the result of this administration’s policy to prosecute families who are crossing the border. But had they not pursued this policy, there would not have been a crisis of these proportions.
.. But the people who wrote that in the first place – Stephen Miller, Gene Hamilton, these guys we’ve been discussing – these are also the people who are in the driver’s seat when it comes to policies along the border. And so for them, a victory from the Supreme Court at a moment like this is definitely motivating for them to continue to kind of keep their feet on the gas here.