News Brief: Migrant Boy Dies, Shutdown Continues, U.S.-Turkey Relations
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
An 8-year-old boy from Guatemala died in U.S. immigration custody yesterday.
NOEL KING, HOST:
That's right. The cause of his death hasn't been determined yet, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection say he'd been showing signs of sickness. Now, earlier this month, another child, a 7-year-old girl who was also from Guatemala, died while in the custody of border agents in New Mexico.
GREENE: Reporter Monica Ortiz Uribe has been following many of the migrants who have been crossing the border, and she is on the line with us from El Paso, Texas.
MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning, David.
GREENE: So what do we know about this 8-year-old boy and what happened here?
ORTIZ URIBE: Well, what we know so far is what Customs and Border Protection has put out in a statement, which is that the boy, who was 8 years old, died shortly after midnight on Christmas Day. He was hospitalized the day before, diagnosed with a common cold and released with ibuprofen and antibiotics. But he later returned to the hospital that evening after he began vomiting. And he died in a hospital in Alamogordo, N.M. Now, my colleague here in El Paso who reports for The Washington Post found out that the boy was held in a border patrol checkpoint a hundred miles north of El Paso due to overcrowding at the facilities here.
Now, these checkpoints are the small stations that travelers pass on highways as they move away from the border. They're not the kind of facilities equipped for long-term stays. The Post is also reporting that, as a result of these two deaths, the Border Patrol is now doing medical assessments on all 700 children in their custody within the El Paso sector, which also includes New Mexico.
GREENE: So does that suggest that they're acknowledging, perhaps, that these migrant children are at risk in U.S. custody right now if they're doing these assessments?
ORTIZ URIBE: Well, yeah. Certainly. Two deaths in one month of young children under similar circumstances is a point of concern. And right now, DHS is doing internal investigations of the deaths vis-a-vis Office of Inspector General. But lawmakers have called for independent investigations, certainly in the case of the first death of the 7-year-old girl. And I have no doubt they'll do the same for this 8-year-old boy.
GREENE: Monica, I want to ask you about another part of this story. U.S. authorities have been releasing a lot of migrants, as I understand it - many in El Paso - over the Christmas holiday. But it sounds like it's been very abrupt. Like, a lot of the volunteers who normally help with people who are being released weren't even warned that this was happening. You've been following this, right?
ORTIZ URIBE: Yes, yes. So DHS, through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has been releasing migrants into communities like El Paso daily, sometimes a hundred, 200 a day. On Sunday and into Christmas Eve, they released large groups of mostly Central American families without warning the local shelter network here in El Paso to be prepared. So I talked with some of these migrants, some of them at the park a block away from the Greyhound station where they were dropped off in downtown El Paso. They had just been released from ICE custody, so that experience was front and center in their minds. One Guatemalan mother, she teared up describing it.
KENYA HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
ORTIZ URIBE: Yeah. She says that they stayed on a filthy floor and didn't get enough to eat or drink. Others told me they were in a windowless, crowded room where they couldn't tell whether it was day or night. I remember - yes. Yes, I remember seeing children still holding the paper-thin blankets that look like tinfoil. Some of them had no shoes. Now, imagine 400 people arriving in this state. Many of them had no money or any idea where they were.
GREENE: That really gives you a sense - a window into the experience of a lot of these migrants at the moment as they are being released. Well, I'm glad you're following that story. That's reporter Monica Ortiz Uribe in El Paso.
ORTIZ URIBE: You're welcome.
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GREENE: All right. In Washington, the standoff continues over a border wall and whether to fund it. And many parts of the federal government remain shut down this morning.
KING: Yep. We've now hit Day 5 of the shutdown, and the president is showing no signs of backing down. Here he is talking to reporters yesterday.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I can't tell you when the government's going to be open. I can tell you it's not going to be open until we have a wall, a fence, whatever they'd like to call it.
KING: All right. So what's it going to take to end this funding impasse?
GREENE: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is in our studio this morning.
Hi there, Sue.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: OK. So I'm just listening to the president there - a wall, a fence, whatever they want to call it. Is he giving a window to Democrats here, and are Democrats willing to budge? Are they hearing anything there that they might like?
DAVIS: I think the relationship right now between congressional Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, and the president are actually in a really bad place. The most recent we've heard from Democratic leaders was a really stinging criticism of the president, saying everyone they talked to at the White House gives them a different answer, and there's no consistency coming from the president on what he will or will not sign. And everyone's waiting for him to cut this deal.
This is a criticism we've heard from Republicans, as well. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that he's waiting for the president to cut a deal with Democrats and then to tell Republicans what it is he will sign when it gets to his desk. So I think there's been a little bit of a pause, honestly, because of the Christmas holiday, and they're going to be back soon. And there hasn't really been any progress.
GREENE: So sometimes you hear, like, the president say something in public, but there are these, you know, negotiations happening behind the scenes. We're not getting any sense that the White House has offered anything in terms of talks. I mean, there's just nothing moving here.
DAVIS: And again, if his Twitter feed is any indication, the president has been really erratic about this. And that, I think, has also made it harder to cut a deal - because he is saying these things very publicly and boxing himself in a little bit on what he can or can't sign. And Democrats don't know what he's going to do. And the fact that he had already told Republicans he would sign one bill and then changed his mind and decided he wouldn't, it's really hard. It's a very volatile situation, and it's hard to predict.
GREENE: Is there a reason that both sides might, I mean, dig in so hard on this issue?
DAVIS: I mean, this has become a bit of a bedrock issue for both parties. This isn't really a serious policy argument we're having right now. This is a political fight. And immigration is why Donald Trump and the Republican Party believe he won the White House, in large part. And at the same time, Democrats are looking at an election in which they just won 40 seats, they picked up control of the House, and they won women, young people, minorities and independents - all groups of people who overwhelmingly oppose the border wall. So why, as their first act right now, would they choose to undermine the voters that just sent a message and put them into power?
So there is very little motivation among Democrats to compromise on this. And I think Republicans look at the president - and he's very sensitive to how it's - the response in conservative media. There's a lot of back channel between conservatives on Capitol Hill directly to the president, saying, you cannot give up this fight. This is - if you give up on this, it's going to undermine your presidency.
GREENE: All right. And so the partial shutdown likely goes on into the new year.
DAVIS: Very possible.
GREENE: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis.
DAVIS: You're welcome.
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GREENE: All right. So no budget deal here in the United States at the moment - but President Trump does seem to be in kind of a deal-making mode when it comes to Turkey.
KING: Yeah. Trump and Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have agreed to coordinate on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria. Now, this would essentially hand the fight against ISIS in Syria over to Turkey. Turkey is now also threatening to attack Syrian Kurdish fighters who partnered with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS. And in the middle of all this, Erdogan has invited Trump to visit Turkey next year.
GREENE: And let's go to Turkey. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Istanbul.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: All right. So Trump meeting Erdogan potentially - is this a new and improved relationship? I mean, we've been talking for so long about U.S.-Turkish tensions.
KENYON: Yes. And there's obviously no date set for such a meeting between the two leaders. I wouldn't want to predict how long these apparently warmer ties will last, but there has been give-and-take on issues important to each side. I mean, not long ago, Turkey released an American pastor, Andrew Brunson. He was allowed to go home. And then much more recently, President Trump, of course, startled U.S. allies by abruptly announcing this pullout of U.S. forces from Syria in the coming months. Turkey's very happy to hear that. They've been praising the move. They now say their military will go on in, finish the fight against ISIS, and, at the same time, attack these Syrian Kurdish fighters that the Americans have been seeing as partners but the Turks see as terrorists.
GREENE: Well, let me pause on that for a moment because that is such a dynamic here. I mean, you have these Kurdish fighters who have been so crucial in the fight against ISIS, working alongside the United states, then there's been this delicate balance - right? - that has prevented Turkey - I mean, for a time - from attacking them. And there was a Turkish official who now says, with the U.S. pulling out, they're going to bury these Kurdish fighters. I mean, what has stopped Turkey so far, and what does Donald Trump do about Turkey's desire to go after them?
KENYON: Well, certainly there's a case to be made that these Kurdish fighters are being abandoned by the U.S. It was Turkey's defense minister who had that quote about the militants being buried in their ditches, by the way. And he also says they've got intense planning going on to move into at least two areas in northern Syria, east of the Euphrates River and also around the Syrian town of Manbij, Controlled by Syrian Kurdish fighters now, the ones Ankara opposes. Turkey equates them with other militants they've been fighting for decades.
But the latest reports from Manbij suggest there's another factor at play, regime forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They have moved into a village near Manbij, we hear. That's raised speculation. Is there another fight coming with the Kurds, or will they try to reach some kind of accommodation? And meanwhile, there are the Turks just across the border.
GREENE: So looking at this broadly, I mean, is this is a moment when Turkey is really emboldened by this U.S. pullout?
KENYON: I think, judging by the official comments we're hearing here, I'd say yes. I mean, President Erdogan's latest comments suggest Turkey may not wait until all U.S. troops have pulled out before acting. But you have to remember Syria remains very complicated. Expectations, of course, are that the Assad regime has the upper hand, will survive with the help of Russia and Iran. But there also still remains Israel. According to Syrian state media, an Israeli attack occurred just this morning. Israel's mostly concerned, of course, about Iran, and then they have French troops on the ground, as well. They're making noises. That's got Turkey very unhappy - so a lot of players with different agendas, despite the U.S. pullout.
GREENE: All right. NPR's correspondent in Istanbul, Peter Kenyon.
KENYON: Thanks, David.
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