MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And we begin this hour with the uproar over children being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Over the weekend, the president tweeted, quote, "put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from their parents once they cross the border." Well, we're going to dig into that statement in a moment. But the fact is, the Trump administration from its early days has talked about the policy as a deterrent. In March of last year, John Kelly told CNN that the administration was considering taking children from their parents if they crossed the border illegally. At the time, Kelly was secretary for the Department of Homeland Security.
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JOHN KELLY: Yes, I am considering - in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network, I am considering exactly that. They will be well cared for as we deal with their parents.
KELLY: Now, administration officials are making clear that this is exactly what border agents are doing. Here is Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking earlier this month.
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JEFF SESSIONS: If you don't want your child to be separated, then don't bring them across the border illegally. It's not our fault that somebody does that.
KELLY: John Kelly's successor as DHS secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, defended the practice on NPR a couple of weeks ago. She said the primary issue is referring adults who break border laws for prosecution, even when those adults are with their children.
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KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Operationally, what that means is we will have to separate your family. That's no different than what we do every day in every part of the United States when an adult of a family commits a crime.
KELLY: Well, we wanted to hear how this practice is playing out, so we reached out to the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights. That's at the University of Chicago Law School. And Jennifer Nagda is policy director for the Young Center. She joins us now. Welcome.
JENNIFER NAGDA: Thank you for having me.
KELLY: Let me start by making clear what stake you have there at the Young Center. You help advocate for children who are in shelters around the country. Is that right?
NAGDA: We do. Under a law that was passed by a bipartisan Congress and signed by a Republican president, we are appointed as the independent child advocate for particularly vulnerable children, unaccompanied children, typically those children who arrive at the border by themselves and are placed in government custody. Our role is to identify and advocate for their best interests with respect to all of the decisions that are made in their case.
KELLY: Have you noticed an uptick in children who are coming in with parents and are then separated from them at the border?
NAGDA: We have absolutely noticed an uptick. I think it might be fair to say we're feeling a little bit overwhelmed by the increase in cases. We noticed as early as late spring of 2017, and through the winter and now the spring of this year, we have seen a significant number of children referred to us for the appointment of a child advocate for kids taken from their parents at the border.
KELLY: And then these children are being sent all over the country.
NAGDA: They are. Children by law are placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in shelters and facilities around the country. Where they are placed depends on where ORR has capacity to place them, whereas a completely different agency, the Department of Homeland Security, is making decisions about where parents will be held in immigration detention. And so often we find that children are thousands of miles apart from where their parents are being detained, which, of course, makes everything from establishing communications to working on their legal cases so much more difficult.
KELLY: I gather that there's one case that has stuck with you - a mom who came from South America with her 4-year-old son, and the little boy was placed in custody while she was sent to adult detention.
NAGDA: He was. He didn't speak Spanish. He spoke a different language. He was being well cared for, but he was really struggling. He was having trouble sleeping. He lost his appetite. He was really starting to regress developmentally. And we, fortunately, had a child advocate who spoke that little boy's language, and she worked really hard to get him weekly calls with his mother. She'd never expected to be taken from her son, and she herself was struggling in debating giving up her claim for asylum.
But she hung in there, and she was eventually released by a judge so that she could live in the community while she continues with her immigration case. And we recommended that it was in the little boy's best interest to be immediately reunified with his mom. And they were, and they came to our office the day they were reunified, and there were a lot of tears, and they were generally very happy tears. But I think what's hard to know is how much work lies ahead for this mom and for this little boy to recover from the experience of spending months away from his mother.
KELLY: Well, let me ask the question that is at the heart of this. As we heard, the Trump administration defends this policy, this practice, as a deterrent. Have you in your work seen evidence that it is deterring families from trying to enter the U.S. illegally?
NAGDA: We've seen no evidence that it is deterring families from entering. The families who are coming to the U.S. are fleeing situations of extraordinary violence. When they are leaving, they are just trying to get to safety. From our experience, the last thing any of them anticipated was having their children taken from them.
KELLY: These people are, though, aware that they are trying to enter the U.S. illegally. What is the reaction to the point that we heard Attorney General Jeff Sessions make - if you don't want to be separated from your child, don't try to bring them across the U.S. border illegally?
NAGDA: So I think it's important to clarify that there's nothing illegal about coming to our border and asking for asylum. These families are not necessarily trying to sneak in. They are coming to the border, they are presenting themselves to border officials, and they are asking for help. Nothing in our laws or international laws suggest that the appropriate next step is to take those children from their parents in the hopes of deterring other families from exercising their right to seek protection at another nation's order.
KELLY: That is Jennifer Nagda of the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights. Jennifer Nagda, thank you.
NAGDA: You're welcome.
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