Changing U.S. policy toward migrant children


MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 1st day of August, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, child migrants.

So far this year, nearly 700,000 people have arrived at the southern border wanting to enter the United States. This is up a third over last year and this year’s not over yet. 

That’s not the biggest number ever seen at the border, though. 

What’s different now is the number of families arriving: they account for about two-thirds of the total.

REICHARD: Detention facilities weren’t designed for this. They were designed for single migrants, not families with children. The unavoidable result? Overcrowding and poor living conditions. Many Republicans point to a particular immigration policy for making the problem worse.

WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg reports now on what some would like to do about it.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG REPORTER: The policy in question is called the Flores Agreement. It’s named for Jenny Flores, a migrant who arrived at the U.S. border in 1985. She was 15 and alone.

David Bier is an immigration expert at the Cato Institute. He explains what happened next.

BIER: She was basically thrown into a jail cell with other adults. She was stripped search. She was subject to all sorts of really inhumane conditions. 

Later that year, the ACLU along with others filed a class action lawsuit to force the government to adopt higher standards of care for immigrant minors. But they also wanted to overturn a rule that unaccompanied minors could only be released to legal guardians or close relatives. 

After a court battle that stretched on for more than a decade, the Clinton administration entered into the Flores Agreement in 1997. David Bier says that court settlement still governs how minors are treated. 

BIER: That settlement agreement required the government to institute humane procedures for all unaccompanied children coming to the border. 

Flores stipulated the government must release unaccompanied children to the least restrictive setting possible and that those children should be released from immigration custody within three to five days.

Now fast forward to 2015. That’s when federal district Judge Dolly Gee ruled the Flores Agreement also applied to accompanied children arriving with family members. 

She also ruled that, no matter the circumstances, the government could not keep any child in custody for more than 20 days. After that, they must be released to an authorized adult or foster-care facility.

Sarah Pierce is an immigration expert at the Migration Policy Institute. She says today many Republican lawmakers argue that 20-day limit encourages families to come to the border.   

PIERCE: What a lot of people think is that migrants are taking children with them purposely to the U.S. borders because it means that once they’re apprehended and once they claim asylum, they will be released into the United States rather than held in detention throughout the pendency of their proceedings. You hear a lot of people characterizing children kind of like a ticket into the United States. 

Republican lawmakers also point out that because of a massive immigration court backlog, most immigration proceedings take much longer than 20 days. That means, while a family awaits their court proceedings, the government is forced to release them because there isn’t enough family bed space. 

In 2018, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa also argued Flores encourages the trafficking of children. 

GRASSLEY: That catch and release policy not only results in the mass release of unauthorized immigrants into American communities but also encourages smugglers, coyotes, and human traffickers to stage family units at the border to exploit the system.

The Trump administration and Republican lawmakers have proposed various Flores reforms over the past two years. In June 2018, the DOJ filed a request with Judge Gee to lengthen custody time limits. She refused

In May, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham proposed the latest Flores amendment legislation. It’s called the Secure and Protect Act of 2019. Among other things, the bill would extend the amount of time migrant children can spend in custody from 20 days to 100 days. Graham told Fox News the bill would also do away with a stipulation that Central American minors can’t be deported back to their home country. 

GRAHAM: There’s a narrative in Central America that if you can get to America with a minor child, you will never get deported, and we have to change that storyline.

Graham’s bill would also create asylum processing centers in Mexico and provide funding for hundreds of immigration judges. 

The measure is scheduled for a committee vote today—one week after Democrats boycotted a committee meeting to prevent a vote. They say changing the Flores Agreement is a non-starter. 

Other lawmakers have proposed making it easier for the government to open state-licensed family holding facilities. Here’s Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma. 

LANKFORD: The Flores Agreement requires a licensed-facility but that has been quite a barrier to actually get licensed facilities from a state for a family facility, and I think that’s created an artificial barrier for us. 

But some immigration policy analysts argue Flores isn’t the only reason migrant families are coming to the border. Migration Policy Institute’s Sarah Pierce says this problem is much more complicated. 

PIERCE: The rise of caravans in the last few years and then there’s huge pull factors in the United States. There’s a very good job market right now for migrants. Also, we have this outdated asylum system….So I definitely think it’s possible that the Flores decision did incentivize people to come to the United States as families. But I think there’s a lot else going on.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.


(AP Photo/Emilio Espejel) Children migrants play cards at an encampment set up by migrants near a Mexican immigration office in Matamoros, Mexico, Wednesday, July 31, 2019, on the border with the U.S. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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