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Lawsuit Alleges Migrant Children Are Used To Catch Other Undocumented Immigrants


There are now more than 10,000 migrant children who arrived in the country illegally being held in U.S. government custody. The system that cares for these children has come under intense scrutiny. Now a number of federal lawsuits allege the Trump administration is using that system to punish and deport the kids and their families. NPR's John Burnett joins me now from Austin. Hey, John.


KELLY: So a number of federal lawsuits. What the number, and what exactly are they alleging?

BURNETT: By my count, there are at least four federal lawsuits filed since last March, and many of them challenge the way the government confines these children. They allege the Trump administration is ignoring a federal mandate to release the immigrant kids to sponsors as soon as possible. The lawsuits claim the kids are being locked up for months when there are loving family members ready to take them into their homes. And, remember; these are mostly teenagers who trekked to the U.S. border from Central America. They say they're fleeing violent street gangs, and most of them are asking for asylum.

KELLY: I gather one of the issues in play here is that sponsors who maybe step forward and say they can take these kids, that they are in danger of deportation. Do the lawsuits get into that?

BURNETT: Exactly. In one lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, it alleges the administration has sort of weaponized an agency called the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR. It's the entity in charge of caring for these underage migrants. The lawsuit says when family members step forward to take a migrant child into their household, which is what the law intends, deportation agents will arrest those sponsors if they're here illegally. Lawyers say so far 170 willing sponsors have been arrested and put into deportation proceedings. And it's had the effect of scaring other family members from coming forward, which means the kids end up staying longer in these controversial ORR shelters. Some have now been there since last summer.

KELLY: And we'll watch and see how the Trump administration plays this in court. But what is their response to the central allegation, that a system that's supposed to be set up to care for children is being used to punish and deport them?

BURNETT: Well, Homeland Security says it will round up unlawful immigrants even if they happen to be sponsors stepping forward to claim a child migrant. There was actually an internal Homeland Security memo that was revealed last week, and it confirms that. The administration planned back in December 2017 to make an agreement between ORR and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. And it says right there in black and white the arrests of sponsors would result in a deterrent effect on human trafficking. Mary Bauer is deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

MARY BAUER: There is no doubt that ORR and ICE are working closely together to use children as bait to catch sponsors and put them into removal proceedings. We know that because they put it in writing and said that they're doing it.

BURNETT: Another really important point the lawsuit is that ORR is allegedly holding children until they can be deported on their 18th birthday. They actually put one of the plaintiffs on a call with reporters - Kayla Vazquez. She was trying to sponsor her 17-year-old Honduran cousin by marriage who was in one of these shelters. She says the social worker who works for ORR keeps changing the rules on her. She's worried the government wants to keep him confined until his 18th birthday when they can come in and arrest him.

KAYLA VAZQUEZ: I feel like they're playing a game. They're just keeping him there to have the family suffer, which is wrong because the ones that are suffering most are the children.

KELLY: What does the ORR, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, say in response to stories like that?

BURNETT: The agency says it's reviewing the court filing and doesn't have any comment at this time. But I should say that in mid-December, a government official told me the children should be home with their parents. The government makes lousy parents. The agency then streamlined the way it screens the sponsors. And today, the number of kids in custody has dropped from just shy of 15,000 to under 11,000. So I think the agency's numbers indicate contrary to what the lawsuit is claiming that it's releasing more kids more quickly to sponsors than it has in the past.

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

BURNETT: It's a pleasure, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Burnett
John Burnett is a national correspondent based in Austin, Texas, who has been assigned a new beat for 2022—Polarized America—to explore all facets of our politically and culturally divided nation. Prior to this assignment, Burnett covered immigration, Southwest 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.
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