Former ICE Director Says Some Migrant Family Separations Could Be Permanent NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with John Sandweg, who served as acting director of ICE under the Obama administration. He says the U.S. risks permanently separating families when it divides migrant parents from their children at the border.

Former ICE Director Says Some Migrant Family Separations Could Be Permanent

Former ICE Director Says Some Migrant Family Separations Could Be Permanent

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NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with John Sandweg, who served as acting director of ICE under the Obama administration. He says the U.S. risks permanently separating families when it divides migrant parents from their children at the border.


So the question remains. How and when will the children who've been separated from their parents by the U.S. government be reunited with their families? The president did say today he is directing U.S. agencies to work on this, but he did not have any specifics. Earlier in the week, while separations were still happening, a White House official said they were short-term. Here is Mercedes Schlapp speaking on Fox News this Tuesday morning.


MERCEDES SCHLAPP: We have to understand that these families that are separated, it is for a limited period of time between five to 10 days.

KELLY: So let me put this to the former acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, under the Obama administration. John Sandweg joins us now. Welcome.

JOHN SANDWEG: Thank you very much for having me.

KELLY: Start with what we just heard there from the White House spokeswoman. Five to 10 days - does that sound right?

SANDWEG: No, I think that displays a fundamental lack of understanding of how this system works and the rules, laws and policies that are in place when a child is separated from their parent.

KELLY: In this situation that has now been created, children who were not unaccompanied, who came to the border with family or caregivers and have now been separated, are now in some cases in different states - start painting me a picture of what that process looks like to try to get them back to their families.

SANDWEG: It's a mess, Mary Louise. And that's - let me explain. This is why the federal government has never before separated families intentionally. You put the federal government in a very difficult spot, and then at an absolute minimum you better have very well-coordinated plans amongst these agencies to design in advance, well before you start taking custody of these children, how are you going to reunite them with their families, when, where, how and who? And I've seen absolutely no evidence that any such plans like that have been made prior to the execution of this policy.

KELLY: What leap out to you as the immediate and most obvious challenges there?

SANDWEG: Well, you have to first track the child as to where they are at any point in the process. But more importantly is you have to track the parents' location. And you have to understand when you put the children into the custody of HHS, they stay in deportation proceedings. That's why a lot of this, you know, catch-and-release talk is really a myth. Every single person who's apprehended at the border is placed into removal proceedings, including the children.

So they move down the deportation train, so to speak, except that the process moves very slowly for the children. And that's simply because they're out of custody, and the immigration courts have long since prioritized people who are in detention over those who are not in detention. So the child won't have their immigration hearing for a matter of two, three, four years depending upon where they are ultimately located. Meanwhile...

KELLY: Hang on. Hang on - two, three, four years possibly?

SANDWEG: Well, that's because there are massive backlogs in the immigration courts. Congress has never adequately funded the immigration courts. So today the - you have about 300 immigration judges who are handling 800,000 cases. So if that child ends up in a state like Arizona or Los Angeles, Calif., that child is probably looking at a two- to four-year window before they are able to present or somebody on their behalf is able to present their claims to an immigration judge and the judge decides whether they get to stay or have to go.

KELLY: In this current situation, as we sit here in June 2018 where children have been separated within the last two months since this policy was put into effect, is there a bureaucratic reason or a legal reason why - now that an executive order has been put in place to rescind the family separation policy why they couldn't be reunited really quickly with their parents?

SANDWEG: Well, in my opinion, they could reunite the current people in detention with their children very quickly. Now, that might require that they release those individuals with an ankle bracelet and a court date from custody. But, you know, I will tell you that in my experience, 99 percent - or 96 depending upon which statistic you're looking at - of the people who are placed on an ankle bracelet actually show up at their hearing in the immigration court. The problem has been the delays when they actually get their hearing. But I think if the Trump administration was committed to reuniting these kids with their parents, the parents who have not yet been deported...

KELLY: This could happen.

SANDWEG: They could do it very easily. You probably have to release the parents, but it could be done quickly.

KELLY: You have raised the possibility that some of these children might - might - be permanently separated from their families. Why, and how real a possibility is that?

SANDWEG: It's a very real possibility. When the child ends up in the foster care system, now you bring into play a whole bunch of state laws that complicate things even further. You know, you have a 3-year-old child, they can't speak for themselves. A guardian is then appointed to represent the best interests of the child. Meanwhile, the parent is shipped off let's say to Honduras. There they are. They don't speak English. They don't have any money for - hire a U.S. lawyer.

And now their child is caught up in the state child welfare system where an advocate might argue it is not in the best interest of that child to be sent back to violence-ridden Honduras to live in a life of poverty and under threat of gang violence. It gets very difficult. The parent no longer can appear at some point, depending on the state laws. Parental custody rights are severed.

And if the parent can't appear in state court - which of course they can't because they've just been deported or they're in detention - they run a serious risk of being - you know, losing their rights as a parent to control where their child goes. I think there is a very serious risk that of the people who are already deported, that they are not going to see their child again, you know, anytime soon, at a minimum - if not, you know, until adulthood.

KELLY: So it sounds what you're describing is one of the most urgent situations to look at is parents who - say they have been separated from children - keeping them in the U.S. until the family reunification can happen.

SANDWEG: Yeah. So this idea that some of the administration people put out in the very beginning that this is a short-term custody, what that tells me is that they had no idea about the thicket of laws and logistics that go into place about reuniting a parent with their child after the parent has been deported. I can tell you from experience dealing with issues related to UACs that that is a very difficult process. And when I was at ICE, we faced some tough cases where we had inadvertently let's say deported a parent, which happens in the normal course despite our policies that promote family unity.

KELLY: And - sorry, what is UAC? You mentioned UAC.

SANDWEG: Oh, I apologize - unaccompanied minor child.

KELLY: Unaccompanied minor, OK.

SANDWEG: Yeah. And that's the term - that's the acronym, the Washington acronym, for what you call a child who's without their parent. And what the administration did was they went out and created new UACs because the moment that child is separated from their parent, by law the child is considered an unaccompanied minor.

KELLY: So what would be your advice going forward? We're in the situation that we're in. What is your advice going forward for what needs to be done in these next days and weeks?

SANDWEG: Listen; I understand the frustration that some people have when they see these families come up. And they think that people are gaming the system. They come with their kids, and then they get a free pass. Well, they don't get a free pass if the Department of Justice manages their docket in a way that moves these cases along quickly. You can give people a fair opportunity to present their asylum claim. And if they lose, they can be removed from the United States. But keep them together and do it in a humane way.

So my recommendation would be - one is when the families arrive, put them on an ankle bracelet, but move their hearings along in an orderly fashion. I recognize that you need to hire more immigration judges. And, you know, Senator Ted Cruz actually introduced a bill specifically on this point calling for an increase of immigration judges and a focused docket that moves these cases along quickly. I think the president publicly dismissed the idea, but really that's on the right track. That's how you deal with this problem.

Separately, Mary Louise, honestly, if your frustration is people coming here in the first place, you have to look outside our borders. And that requires working with our international partners in Mexico to try to limit the flow of people across their southern border heading north. It also requires a more active role in Central America to try to address the underlying violence and poverty that is pushing these people out in the first place.

KELLY: John Sandweg - he was the acting director of ICE during the Obama administration from 2013 to 2014. Thanks for talking with us.

SANDWEG: Thank you for having me.


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