A Texas Prosecutor On Immigrant Family Separations
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. has chosen the site for a tent city to house migrant children. Kids are to be held there as a former Walmart building and other facilities fill up. This is an effect of a policy pursued by the Trump administration.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions says that everyone apprehended at the border will be prosecuted and their children taken away. In the Southern District of Texas, along the Rio Grande, the U.S. attorney is Ryan Patrick, who says prosecutions are up.
RYAN PATRICK: We're double what we were doing - easily double what we were doing just two months ago.
INSKEEP: Ryan Patrick is from a prominent Texas political family. Appointed by President Trump, he follows a policy to prosecute even people fleeing violence who can legally apply for asylum.
Do you assume that every single person crossing the border is a lawbreaker, full stop?
PATRICK: So what we are doing, as a zero-tolerance policy, is we are prosecuting everyone that is referred to us by Border Patrol who is caught illegally entering the country. These are people who are entering between the ports of entry, crossing the Rio Grande.
INSKEEP: Patrick says asylum seekers are crossing the border the wrong way, failing to line up at the regular ports of entry. His boss, Jeff Sessions, says welcoming asylum seekers in the past encouraged more people to seek asylum and the U.S. wants to deter others.
PATRICK: In South Texas, particularly in the summer, these families are making this decision to cross the Southwest border in the summer. It is hot. It is dangerous. They are paying coyotes to smuggle them across the border in sometimes very dangerous situations. It is not uncommon for some of our more sparsely populated and more desert counties down there to find a dozen or more bodies perish in the summer heat and I don't want to see that happen.
INSKEEP: So you're being fairly open here. This policy - a change in policy, a change in the way people are treated, is intended as a deterrent. You don't want people to come. You want them to think twice about coming.
PATRICK: We are following the law. I mean, there's many people who...
INSKEEP: But let's remember also, you can follow the law in a different way. Previous administrations have. This is a policy choice.
PATRICK: Well, it is a policy choice by the president and by the attorney general. One of the things that, you know, I've heard the attorney general say - it is not - in his estimation, it is not equitable or fair to simply, like I said, wave a wand over an entire population of crossers just because they come in in a family unit or they have a child with them and we simply ignore them on the criminal prosecution. They're still crossing the border illegally.
INSKEEP: What did you think about when - in your district, if I'm not mistaken - a father was separated from his child and committed suicide?
PATRICK: It is a tragic story. I'm aware of it. I can't comment on that because that did happen in our district and there is - it's been publicly reported that the Texas Rangers are investigating that. He was in custody in a local county jail. So I can't comment on that because, at this point, I don't know what involvement our office may have in that case.
INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that it's being investigated by state authorities, but for all you know it could become a federal matter?
PATRICK: For all I know it could be, yes.
INSKEEP: What did you think about when you saw - if you saw this. There's a public defender named Miguel Nogueras who is in your district as well who said that, according to interviews with migrants that he's talked with, that people are told that their children are being taken for a break to play or to bathe or to sleep and only later does it dawn on them that their children have been taken away.
PATRICK: I'm aware of those reports, but any specifics beyond what I've seen in the news that you're referring to - I'm not aware of those sort of specific instances or what the agents may or may not be telling folks when they're apprehended.
INSKEEP: As a citizen, I mean...
PATRICK: Well, I mean...
INSKEEP: ...Is that OK?
PATRICK: ...Well - look. I want the agents who are sworn to execute and uphold the law, whether they're Border Patrol agents or local police, to follow the law. And the Border Patrol agents don't fall under DOJ or DOJ umbrella of agencies. That is a DHS issue. I've seen these stories. They are heartbreaking. I have three little children of my own. I'm not cold to these issues.
I think some of these stories are outliers. This is not the norm. I don't think this is a standard operating procedure on how all of the agents conduct their business. There's going to be some situations that are going to be regrettable or that break your heart or - and it is unfortunate.
INSKEEP: Are the parents who are detained - as well as the children who are detained - are they entitled to legal representation as you prepare to prosecute them?
PATRICK: So once we are done with our piece of it - with the Department of Justice - they've come to court, they've been given a federal public defender. The public defender spends time with them, explains what their rights are, what they've been charged with if they decide to plead guilty. The judge is there overseeing this entire process. One of the other things we did this week in our office is we had a judge in Brownsville raise some serious concerns on some of these situations and anecdotal stories like you mentioned, and we facilitated HHS and DHS making sure we got the information to the judge that he wanted.
So when apprehended, if they're a family unit, they're given a card in English and in Spanish that has different 1-800 numbers for them to be able to contact. And there's also a text line. There's an email address, if they have access to those in their different holding facilities, where they can track not only their own case but also the location of their child.
INSKEEP: There have also been reports - you've probably heard these - of people being given a card with the wrong number or an immigration tip line or a non-working number, that sort of thing.
PATRICK: I've heard those reports. And I can tell you that I have personally been involved in the process this week of getting the information on those 1-800 numbers and on those cards, making sure it's correct, and getting them to the judge who had concerns in Brownsville.
INSKEEP: But, bottom line, if there's an adult whose kid has been separated from them, is the adult going to get a lawyer? Is the kid going to get a lawyer?
PATRICK: Yes. So the adult does get a lawyer in the criminal proceeding. In the civil proceeding on the deportation, that's a different issue. If there is a criminal conviction for illegal entry or illegal re-entry, they can be - the entire family unit and that individual can be deemed an expedited removal. And there are laws that govern when there is a right to counsel or not a right to counsel. It is my understanding that there is not necessarily a right to counsel in an expedited removal.
And then, when it comes to the juveniles who are in HHS custody, there are some space limitations with attorneys. At any time in the process, they can hire their own attorney. I'm not aware of any legal provision that provides representation, like it would in a criminal case, in many civil proceedings on the deportation side.
INSKEEP: As a father, what do you think about when you read about kids being housed in a Walmart - a former Walmart?
PATRICK: Well, it is - the whole process, as a dad, as a human, it is heartbreaking. But like I said - the Walmart you're referring to that's been in the news recently is the - is a facility in Brownsville. What is surprising, I think, to many people is 70 percent of those kids in that facility came here by themselves, not even with a family.
INSKEEP: So there's still an issue with unaccompanied minors as there was a few years ago. OK. Fine.
PATRICK: Yes, there is. So, obviously, there are still family units being broken up. But the average stay of those children in those facilities is less than 20 days. It would be - it would be incredibly difficult, if I was a parent, to see my child one of the situations. But at the same time, it also is difficult to wrap my mind around - and I'm not in their situation - but they're also taking incredible risk to their own life and safety on crossing the border illegally in the way that they do, with their children, and putting them in danger.
INSKEEP: Ryan Patrick, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas. Thanks very much.
PATRICK: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. 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 NPR’s programming is the audio record.