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News Brief: Migrants At Border, 2020 Census Case, Labor Secretary Under Scrutiny


And all this week, I have been walking back and forth across the border between the United States and Mexico. We're here at a time when this country's approach to migration is changing. There is no more wall than there used to be, even though President Trump says otherwise. But what has changed is that some people seeking asylum in the U.S. are now being told to wait in Mexico. And we're down here learning how that policy is changing people's lives.


Well, Noel, my first question is whether that policy would be a reason why the number of migrants reaching the United States seems to have dropped a little lately?

KING: Yeah, authorities tell us it is part of a reason, part of one reason. Migration, Steve, always goes down in the summer, as you know, because it is just unbearably hot.


KING: So fewer people decide to make the journey. But important to note - there's also been increased enforcement, a crackdown essentially on the Mexican side of the border. And then there is this Trump administration policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols initiative. Most people just call it Remain In Mexico.

INSKEEP: How does it work?

KING: All right, let's say you are looking to get asylum in the U.S. Back in the day, in the past, you'd cross the border and you'd say, I had to leave my home country. I'm in danger for X reason. And you would be given a court date, and you'd wait in the United States until your court date. Remain In Mexico changes that; now you get to the U.S., and you are sent back over the border to wait in Mexico for your day in a U.S. court.

Now, this is happening to thousands of people. I'm right across the border from Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. Over 7,000 people have been dropped off there, sometimes in the middle of the night with no money and nowhere to go. It is really, really unpleasant.

INSKEEP: And you can see what the purpose of the Trump administration is here, or one purpose anyway - they argue that letting people into the United States to wait for a court date gives them incentive just to come, whether they have a good reason or not - that's their case. So they make them wait in Juarez. What do you see when you go there?

KING: Oh, my goodness. I mean, I've been talking to people who've been sent back. I went to a homeless shelter where a lot of these people are staying; they have no place else to go. It's on the outskirts of Juarez. It's in the desert. There's this cluster of little yellow buildings. So I walk into one of them. There are two bedrooms, and there are 12 people from three families living there. There's lots of kids, teenagers, toddlers running in and out. I mean, it's very hot.

I met a woman named Belkis (ph), and she had just the worst stroke of luck. She showed up at the U.S. border seeking asylum the same week that Remain In Mexico came into effect here. And she told me that the Border Patrol essentially said to her, bad luck - you guys are going back to Mexico. Now, she's here with her 17-year-old son. He was targeted back home by the gang MS-13. And she told me, like, right now my kid is a mess.

BELKIS: (Speaking Spanish).

KING: She said, "He's 17 years old. He's an adolescent. But he cries all the time, like a little kid."

INSKEEP: Oh, gosh. One of many people, I gather, you met, including one who has a court hearing today - is that right?

KING: That's right. They're crossing over the border into El Paso today. So this is Joseph (ph) and Tanya (ph). They're a family from Honduras. They have a little daughter with them. Tanya saw her parents murdered, again by members of a gang. She was incredibly brave. She testified against these people in court. The gang was furious. And Steve, they put a note on her door one day that said, and I quote, "You have 45 minutes to leave. Sincerely, MS-13." Sincerely MS-13.


KING: So she took her family and she got out.

INSKEEP: That is definitely the kind of - you have to believe that sincerity in that situation, I guess.

KING: Yeah, absolutely. She is lucky because she has a lawyer; many migrants don't, though. And some of these migrants have been stuck in Juarez for months, Steve, and they have just decided to give up. When I was at the shelter, I heard that dozens of people have gone home. I met a young guy who's 18 from Guatemala. His father lives in Oregon, so that's where he was headed.


KING: He shows up at the U.S. border; he gets back to Juarez, and his dad basically tells him, son, I think you've got to give it up. Now, I will tell you something interesting about him, Steve - he didn't seem happy to be going home to Guatemala, but he was one of the few people I've talked to this entire trip who didn't break down crying when I interviewed him. He told me he's just going to get on a bus and go home.

INSKEEP: You're telling me that most people do weep when they start talking.

KING: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

INSKEEP: All right, thanks for your reporting. We'll continue hearing you through the week - Noel King. And stay with us here because we're going to continue our discussion. President Trump's push to get a citizenship question on the 2020 census has hit another setback, even after the Supreme Court ruled that that question must go.

KING: The Trump administration, though, is still trying to get this done. If they're going to do it within the law, they need some new rationale, some new reasoning. So the Justice Department tried to change its entire legal team - new lawyers to make a new case. Yesterday, a federal judge in New York said no way.

INSKEEP: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers all things census and joins us now from New York. Hansi, good morning.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why did the judge say no?

WANG: The judge called this request to withdraw these attorneys, quote, "patently deficient," and he noted the administration provided no reason, let alone satisfactory reasons, which is what is required in order to change out lawyers here in this court in Manhattan. And he did allow two attorneys who - one has already left the Justice Department; one has left the civil division of the Justice Department to withdraw - but most of the attorneys are still on the case. And the Justice Department has declined to comment on this latest development.

INSKEEP: Has the president responded to being stuck with the legal team whose strategy apparently he did not like?

WANG: Yes. Not surprisingly, he tweeted last night and he called this judge, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, an Obama-appointed judge. And he said that this judge, quote, "won't let the Justice Department use the lawyers that it wants to use." That's not what Judge Furman did here; he said that he is declining this request because the Justice Department did not provide a reason for withdrawing these attorneys.

INSKEEP: Now, I guess we should mention we would normally not bother to spend people's time talking about the exact identities of various members of a legal team, but there seems to be something much larger at stake here. What is behind this effort to change lawyers?

WANG: That is a really good question, and that is also what is so unusual here. The Justice Department has not provided a reason to the public as well for this change. And I've talked to former Justice Department attorneys; they're concerned about what's happening here. Sam Oliker-Friedland, a former career DOJ attorney, entered the service under President Obama, just left earlier this year under President Trump - this is what he told me.

SAM OLIKER-FRIEDLAND: To reassign a trial team at this stage in litigation is - to not put too fine of a point on it - insane. To sort of throw someone in the deep end at this point in any litigation this major causes massive disruption.

INSKEEP: So I guess we don't know literally why they tried to change the team, but we do know they were trying to change the legal argument, right? They'd essentially lost before the Supreme Court. They had a very long-shot opportunity to come up with some new rationale to squeeze a citizenship question on the census, and they needed lawyers who would try to make that case.

WANG: And former DOJ attorneys are telling me they are concerned that this is a sign that Justice Department attorneys are being pressured to possibly violate their ethical standards by making arguments going forward.

INSKEEP: Hansi, thanks so much.

WANG: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang.


INSKEEP: All right, pressure is mounting for Labor Secretary Alex Acosta to resign. Here's Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer.


CHUCK SCHUMER: It is now impossible for anyone to have confidence in Secretary Acosta's ability to lead the Department of Labor. If he refuses to resign, President Trump should fire him.

KING: Schumer is making that call because Acosta helped broker a plea deal for Jeffrey Epstein. Acosta was a federal prosecutor in Miami when Epstein, the billionaire, was first accused of sex crimes back in 2007. Now, Epstein ended up doing only 13 months in jail. He was also allowed to leave six days a week to go to work. He is now back in court on sex trafficking charges.

INSKEEP: So how is his past affecting him now? NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is covering this story. He's in our studios. Good morning.


INSKEEP: So there is one guy who can fire Alex Acosta. What's he saying?

ORDOÑEZ: That's right. Well, right now President Trump appears to be standing behind his labor secretary. Here is what he said yesterday when he was asked about it.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I feel very badly actually for Secretary Acosta because I've known him as being somebody that works so hard and has done such a good job. I feel very badly about that whole situation. But we're going to be looking at that and looking at it very closely.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, we've been here before, where other top officials have fallen amid a drumbeat of calls to resign and sustained reporting. You can name Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt - all these officials eventually resigned despite similar words of support from the president. There is a difference here. Those - that alleged misconduct, those cases happened before the administration; in this case with Acosta, it happened well before he joined the administration.

INSKEEP: I guess we should also notice that, in some ways, this issue is personal for the president. He has a guy who is accused of doing something wrong in a case of sexual misconduct. The president has been accused of sexual misconduct. He has a guy who's been accused of doing something wrong in a case involving Jeffrey Epstein, who, in the past, was a friend of the president, by the president's own account, and they spent a lot of time together. This is a case that the president has some involvement in.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, the president obviously has this history; he has the history with Epstein. And he is trying to back away from some of that. We heard that yesterday as well, despite the reporting and the - what we know about their relationship. He is now saying that they are no longer friends, that they had kind of a falling-out.

INSKEEP: Now, there is, as you pointed out, the fact that Alex Acosta did this plea deal long before he was labor secretary - years and years ago. But Senator Tim Kaine, Democratic senator, said it was an illegal plea deal. Is there any way to say that it is illegal?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, I think, really, it's going to be up to the courts to decide that. But earlier this year, a federal judge did rule that prosecutors had violated federal law when they did not tell victims about the plea deal. Because of that, the Justice Department said they're investigating allegations of professional misconduct by prosecutors in the case. The White House is also looking into this.

INSKEEP: Is Alex Acosta himself just going about his job as labor secretary?

ORDOÑEZ: Not surprising - he's defending himself. He took to Twitter, saying the outcome with Epstein was a good outcome. Epstein went to jail. He registered as a sexual offender. But obviously Democrats want him to resign.

INSKEEP: I guess it's a detail of Epstein going to jail that makes some people question this. Because he did go to a facility, but wasn't he, like, six days a week allowed to leave and go to work during the day?

ORDOÑEZ: That's correct; he was able to leave.

INSKEEP: OK, Franco, thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Franco Ordoñez.


Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.