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As Trump Admin Misses Deadline to Unite Families, HHS Head Calls Jailing Kids an Act of “Generosity”

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The Trump administration failed to meet a court-imposed deadline Tuesday to reunite all of the children under the age of 5 whom immigration officials took from their parents at the border and then sent to jails and detention centers across the country. Only 38 of the 102 children under 5 have been reunited with their parents, some of whom say their young children did not even recognize them at first after the traumatic, protracted separation. 
On Tuesday, Judge Dana Sabraw reiterated that all separated children—3,000 in total—must be reunited with their parents by July 26, saying, “These are firm deadlines; they are not aspirational goals.” On Tuesday night, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar told CNN that the United States was acting “generously” toward the migrant children. For more, we speak with Lomi Kriel, immigration reporter for the Houston Chronicle, and Barbara Hines, an immigration lawyer and founder of the University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Trump administration failed to meet a court-imposed deadline Tuesday to reunite all children under the age of 5 who were separated from their parents at the border. According to the government, just 38 children out of the 102 children under the age of 5 have been reunited with their parents. Attorney Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the Trump administration for missing the deadline.

LEE GELERNT: We are extremely disappointed that the government looks like they’re not going to reunify all the eligible children today and that they have not even tracked down the removed parents. But we do think, since the judge became involved in the compliance process as of this past Friday, things have taken a real step forward, and there has been progress. We are hoping that that means, from now on, no deadline will be missed, either for these under 5 or for any of the 2,000-plus going forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Over 60 children under the age of 5 remain separated from their parents, as well as nearly 3,000 children over the age of 5. On Tuesday, Judge Dana Sabraw reiterated that all separated children must be reunited with their parents by July 26. He said, quote, “These are firm deadlines; they are not aspirational goals.” On Tuesday night, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar told CNN the United States was acting generously toward the migrant children.

HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY ALEX AZAR: It is one of the great acts of American generosity and charity, what we are doing for these unaccompanied kids who are smuggled into our country or come across illegally.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary Azar went on to explain the delays in reuniting the other children with their parents.

HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY ALEX AZAR: We could put children back with individuals who are murderers, kidnappers, rapists or are not their parents, but we’ve worked with the court to ensure that we do our duty, which is to protect child welfare and ensure that they are in fact that. I could release all of the kids by 10:55 p.m., but I don’t think you want that. I know the court doesn’t want that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by two guests. Lomi Kriel is an immigration reporter for the Houston Chronicle, joining us from Houston. And Barbara Hines is an immigration lawyer and founder of the University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic. She has worked on immigration issues in Texas, including cases involving immigrant parents separated from their children, and will tell us the story of Flores, the Flores settlement. But we’re going to Lomi Kriel in Houston first.

Lomi, you told the story of a woman who you witnessed in court just last week, or the week before, who was raped by two police officers. Can you repeat that story here?

LOMI KRIEL: Sure. So, I was in Brownsville last week and sat in on a credible fear hearing in the Port Isabel Detention Center, where most of the separated parents are being held. And all of the women in this hearing had already had their credible fear interviews denied, which is the first step to getting asylum. And they were asking the judge to reconsider their claims. One of the women was this mother who told the judge that she had been raped by police officers in the country where she’s from in Central America, and that she was coming here to ask for asylum because they threatened to kill her and her family. She came here with four of her children, including one she was still breast-feeding. And when Border Patrol agents found her, they prosecuted the mom for coming here illegally, and took away her children, placing them in foster care. And at the hearing last week, she told the judge that she had been unable to articulate her asylum claim because she was so upset about her separated children and not knowing where they were. And she said she hadn’t yet been able to hear anything about them. The judge eventually decided—he sternly questioned her, but eventually told her that he was going to give her another chance to make her asylum claim. But as of last week, she still had not heard from her children. And we don’t know if she’s been reunited with them yet at this point.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, Lomi, does that mean that the immigration officials separated her children from her before they even conducted an interview with her? Could you explain that?

LOMI KRIEL: Yeah, I mean, that is how the process seems to have worked. You know, Border Patrol, when they were doing this policy, Border Patrol agents would decide to separate the parents and the children, and would prosecute the parents, who would usually serve a few days in prison before going to immigration detention. And that’s where they had the opportunity to make their asylum claim.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And was there any—during the proceeding, was there any indication of what kind of paperwork, if any, ICE officials gave or Border Patrol gave to the mother about where the children were being sent?

LOMI KRIEL: That didn’t come up in the hearing, but we know, just from other parents I’ve spoken to, they sometimes were just told their children were going to Texas or to Florida. And sometimes they were given a 1-800 number for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is in charge of these immigrant children, but they complained that the 1-800 number didn’t—they couldn’t always get through on it, or that the agency often required a number to call back, which parents in detention often didn’t have. So, it was really difficult for them to find out the whereabouts of their children.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to CNN Tuesday evening, secretary of health and human services, Secretary Alex Azar, said 38 children had been reunited, and explained the delays in reuniting the other children with their parents.

HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY ALEX AZAR: The remaining ones are children whose parents didn’t confirm to be parents. They were lying about being parents. They’re demonstrably unfit. We’ve got one alleged to be a murderer, one who’s a kidnapper, one rapist, one who’s a trafficker, one alleged by the child to be a child abuser. We’ve got another 23 who are unavailable because they’re in Marshals Service custody or jails, or have been deported, and then, finally, another 25 where we have not yet completed the parent checks or the criminal background checks, or they had been released into the interior of the country. And we continue to work very collaboratively with the court on all of these. Our central mission is protecting child welfare, while still reuniting families.

AMY GOODMAN: Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez was also on CNN. He refuted Azar’s claims in an interview with Erin Burnett.

MAYOR TONY MARTINEZ: That’s not the information I got. And I basically went straight to the coordinator of the entire Southwest Keys. And according to the information I got—and like I said, I’ve been there—they claim to be able to have all the information necessary and ready to go. And for whatever reason, it had become somewhat out of their control as to how they go from here on out. So, there may be a miscommunication somewhere, but I felt like I got a good answer from the executive director of Southwest Keys in saying, “We’re ready to go and ready to move on.” But they just—they’re just waiting there in limbo.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez, who said that Casa Padre, the Southeast Keys facility, said they had 36 kids ready to go, but the government wouldn’t move on them. Barbara Hines, you’re the head of the University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic. Can you respond to Azar saying this remarkable quote, that it was an act of American generosity that they took the children from the parents, and then Trump following up yesterday, as he was leaving for the NATO summit, saying that these people shouldn’t have come into this country at all?

BARBARA HINES: Well, I find that statement incredible. There was no concern for the welfare of children. No one concerned with child welfare would take young children away from their parents. These are legitimate asylum seekers doing what I consider a really brave thing: looking for safety and refuge for their children.

AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that they only returned—what is it?—about a third, a little over a third, of the children on a court-imposed deadline yesterday, and still have almost 3,000 to go, which must be returned within the next two weeks? Can you tell us the status of this, and your colleagues throughout Texas and Arizona who are working with these nonprofits that are trying to unite parents, even parents who have been released, who are there, who are desperately waiting for their children?

BARBARA HINES: So, our experience has been that the government has imposed all sorts of regulations and requirements for parents to get their children back. And what I think is important is that the government had no process whatsoever to take the children away. So it’s very hypocritical to now be saying you have to have a police check, and you have to have this, and you have to have that, when there was no process whatsoever for the parents when their children were seized. So, there are many women and men who have been released from ICE detention who are unable to see their children. They’re allowed an hour visit, if they can, where their children are detained—for example, Southwest Keys, that you mentioned.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also, this issue that was raised over the weekend by federal authorities of doing DNA testing to determine whether children were actually the children of people who were claiming to be their parents, do you know whether it’s actually gone through or what the status of that is?

BARBARA HINES: I don’t know. I know there’s been a lot of debate about DNA. And once again, that’s an extraordinary, unnecessary process. DNA is only used when there is a significant or serious doubt about parentage. Many of the parents who have been denied the recovery of their children have birth certificates, and they have documents to prove that they are the parents and that these are their children.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Also, what about the whole issue of the parents who have already been deported? What is the administration doing in terms of them? They’re just saying, “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it now that we’ve deported them”?

BARBARA HINES: Well, yes. I think they’re certainly not doing what I would consider due diligence. They were responsible for deporting the parents, and they need to find these parents, and they need to reunite them with their children as quickly as possible. I think it is outrageous, the idea, in our country, that you would deport parents without their children, parents who arrived at the border with their children.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to a parent who’s been separated from her child. A Honduran mother named Yessica told the BBC what happened to her when she and her 6-year-old son attempted to enter the United States six weeks ago.

YESSICA: [translated] They told us, “You are criminals. You will be imprisoned, and your kids will be given up for adoption.” They yelled at us so badly that our kids got scared. They told us to lay our kids on the floor. At midnight, they came to pick up the kids. There was a mom breast-feeding her baby, and one of the officers told her she wasn’t an animal to be taking her breast out like that, and they took her baby. They cuffed her and chained her in front of the kids. What they’ve done is horrible.

I have no information on my son. It’s been more than 50 days since I last heard of him. I call, and no one gives me any information. I can’t even sleep. I wake up, and my heart is beating so fast. I can’t even breathe. They told me my son is somewhere in New York. But no one answers the phone when I call. There are so many mothers like me, that have no idea where their kids are and that are still in the detention center. Never did I imagine it was going to be like this, that they would take our kids. Our kids have no fault for the mistakes the adults make.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Yessica, talking to the BBC about what happened when she and her 6-year-old son attempted to enter the United States. If you could tell me, Lomi Kriel, how typical is this story? And are you seeing these stories increase or decrease right now?

LOMI KRIEL: I mean, I think, from what I know, just from having talked to parents and lawyers, that story is pretty typical. I mean, that’s what happened with parents who came with their children. Sometimes their children were taken away, and they were told about it. Or sometimes they would—there were some cases where parents reported they went to the bathroom, and when they came back, their children were gone. So, and also, it’s been very difficult, as she said, for the parents to find out where their children are.

These stories, though, are not increasing. The administration has stopped, essentially, prosecuting parents who come with their children. So, we are not seeing more separations. The question now is just reunifying all of these children with their parents.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, on Monday, federal Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles dealt a major blow to the Trump administration’s efforts to indefinitely jail migrant families, including asylum seekers. She ruled the Trump administration cannot amend the 1997 Flores agreement, which says children cannot be jailed for more than 20 days. Barbara Hines, could you talk about the Flores—the Flores agreement, what it is and how it initially developed, and also the problems that occurred with it under the Obama administration, as well now as with the Trump administration?

BARBARA HINES: Yes. The Flores settlement came out of litigation over the treatment of children in the 1980s into the 1990s. And it is a settlement that’s been in effect since 1997. And it governs the treatment of children, if they’re detained. But the most important thing in Flores is that the presumption is that children should not be detained, that they should be released as promptly as possible—generally, within five days, if there’s no facility in the area; if there is, in 72 hours—and that they should be reunited outside the community as quickly as possible.

And the Obama administration violated the Flores agreement, trying to keep parents and children detained for long periods of time, arguing the Flores settlement—just like the Trump administration—does not include accompanied children—that is, children that appear with their parents, that present themselves at the border with their parents. And Judge Gee now twice has resoundedly rejected both the arguments of the Obama administration and, once again, of the Trump administration, and has rejected the notion that children and their parents can be prolonged, indefinitely detained, as Trump is now claiming that he needs to do or what he wants to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Who was Flores?

BARBARA HINES: Jenny Flores was a Salvadoran who was detained in the late ’80s, the last time there were large numbers of Central Americans coming to this country.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, the Trump administration says—I mean, they continue to defy deadlines. They say they did this—it was a humanitarian act, separating children from murderers and rapists. And now they say they will hold them together, want to hold them indefinitely, perhaps on military bases and other places. So, what happens next? Can the Flores settlement withstand the challenge?

BARBARA HINES: Well, I think the Flores settlement can withstand the challenge. The Flores settlement is the law. It’s an agreement that the government entered into and has abided by for many years, although, as I said, the Obama administration tried to get out of the settlement, as well. But basically, Judge Gee said that what Trump is proposing is not possible under the settlement, and it’s not possible under the order of the San Diego judge. So, basically, I don’t think that Trump is going to be able to hold families indefinitely. What’s important, as well, is that in his executive order and in his pronouncements, he ignores the liberty interest, the Constitution and our immigration statutes, which provide for all immigrants the right to present an application for release from detention.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 15 seconds, but what about people who come over the border who don’t speak Spanish even—the Trump administration says the border guards speak Spanish—but indigenous languages, Barbara Hines?

BARBARA HINES: That’s a very significant problem. Colleagues of mine met with families at the Hutto detention center near Austin, and they could not communicate with the indigenous speakers there. They were even more isolated than the Spanish speakers. They had no idea what was happening with their children. There are not enough interpreters for indigenous, primarily Guatemalan, languages, even before this humanitarian crisis. The phone lines don’t work in detention centers. There were not enough interpreters. So this is really one of the most isolated populations. And the idea that the administration would then take their children and not be able to communicate with them is, I think, illegal and certainly immoral.

AMY GOODMAN: Barbara Hines, we want to thank you for being with us, University of the Texas Immigration Law Clinic, and Lomi Kriel of the Houston Chronicle. We’ll link to your pieces at

This is Democracy Now!, When we come back, President Trump threatened to bomb Venezuela? We’ll talk with Mark Weisbrot about Venezuela, the major protests that are taking place in Haiti, and also about what’s happening in Brazil and Mexico. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Times of Love” by Las Cafeteras, here in Democracy Now!'s studios. To see their performances and our interview, go to I'm Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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