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ACLU Family Separation Hearing


The Trump administration is asking for more time to comply with a federal judge's order to reunite migrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. By Tuesday, the judge has ruled children under the age of 5 should be back with their parents. A Justice Department lawyer made a plea for an extension to that same judge this afternoon in San Diego. Well, NPR's John Burnett was listening in to the hearing. He's on the line with me now from Austin.

Hey, John.


KELLY: So what exactly happened in court today?

BURNETT: Well, the DOJ attorney, Sarah Fabian, asked the federal judge, Dana Sabraw, to give the government more time to reunite the parents and kids. This whole thing is happening because that judge ruled last week the government needs to speed up its laborious process of reunifying immigrant parents and their children who were separated at the border. Remember, we're talking about nearly 3,000 separated children in the custody of Health and Human Services, or HHS; 101 of them are under 5 years of age. Of these, we learned today, that only 86 parents have been matched to their kids so far. That's less than 5 percent of the total. The government was under these tight deadlines to bring these parents and kids back together.

KELLY: Well, did the judge sound amenable to giving the government any more time?

BURNETT: Well, he sort of punted. He's told both parties to meet him again on Monday morning in the courtroom. And at the end of the 90-minute hearing, he said he wants more information. He told the government, on the ACLU's request, to make a list and put on it the reunification status of every one of the 101 kids who's under 5. He also said he wants the government to reunify the 19 parents who've already been deported back to Central America without their kids. The government had written them off. But really - but both he and the ACLU, I should add, said the court order is working, that HHS is hustling to reunify these families.

KELLY: If HHS is hustling, why can't it make this deadline that's been imposed?

BURNETT: Well, so Health and Human Services says it's brought on 250 additional personnel. They're working nights and weekends to comply with the judge's orders. But they say they have to do cheek swabs of the children and the parents to do DNA tests to establish parentage. They have to conduct criminal background checks of the parents. They have to determine the fitness of the parents to be able to release the kids to them.

And so the government says the tension is between a fast release and a safe release. And what they don't want is to release the kids into the hands of a human smuggler or an unsafe parent. But Lee Gelernt with the ACLU told the judge the government should streamline these lengthy, cumbersome procedures. He said, you've taken a child from the parent. You need to give the child back.

KELLY: Right. And I'm trying to square what you're saying with what HHS has been saying for days now. They keep repeating, we know where all the kids are. They, of course, have years of experience dealing with immigrant children, sheltering them. What went wrong here?

BURNETT: Well - it's a great question, and it gets to the heart of this mess the government finds itself in. These families were separated without much forethought. It was a hasty policy. There was not good tracking data. And it's easier to break something than to put it back together again. You're dealing with two separate Cabinet departments, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, that have different information systems that don't talk to each other. So it's been a nightmare.

KELLY: In the moments we have left, John, I wonder if you'd just give us a quick reality check. I mean, who is responsible for this situation that looks so chaotic still from the outside?

BURNETT: Right. The HHS secretary, Alex Azar, has been blaming the federal court for these, what he says, are unrealistic deadlines. And an HHS shelter manager in Texas with many years of experience told me recently, it's costing all this enormous time and effort and expense to undo what the White House's child separation policy did. He described it as incredibly dumb and stupid decision that harms the children.

KELLY: NPR's John Burnett reporting there from Austin. Thank you, John.

BURNETT: You bet.


As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.