Labor Sec Marty Walsh: WH Can't Stop States From Ending COVID Unemployment Pay : The NPR Politics Podcast Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont had asked the Labor Department to bar governors from prematurely ending supplementary unemployment payments tied to the pandemic. In an interview with NPR, Walsh said there probably wasn't anything the administration could do to stop them.

Also: Vice President Harris is taking her first international trip in an effort to stem the flow of migrants to the U.S. southern border.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, and congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

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Labor Sec Marty Walsh: WH Can't Stop States From Ending COVID Unemployment Pay

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HALEY: Hi. I'm Haley (ph).

JOEL: And I'm Joel (ph).

HALEY: And we're calling from the Curonian Spit on Lithuania's Baltic coast. This podcast was recorded at...


12:42 p.m. on Friday, July 27.

JOEL: Things may have changed by the time you hear it.

HALEY AND JOEL: All right. Here's the show.


KHALID: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. In yesterday's episode, we told you that we'd be back in your feed again as soon as we knew more about whether or not the Trump administration would meet the deadline to reunite families separated at the border.

Federal authorities say they met that deadline Thursday night. But the story is more complicated, and we are here to explain why. I'm Asma Khalid, political reporter.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, political editor.

KHALID: And we're joined by NPR correspondent John Burnett in Texas. Hey, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hi, Asma. Hi, Domenico.

MONTANARO: Hey there.

KHALID: Hey. So, John, we have brought you in because you've been on the border covering this story. You've been covering it for a while. And we just want to know sort of the - the big, I think, murky question for a lot of us is whether or not the Trump administration actually met this deadline. Did they?

BURNETT: Well, they were able to reunite, as of yesterday, about 1,440 kids. And by their reckoning, they say they did meet the deadline. But it's really - it's just how you want to define it. I think the immigration attorneys and a lot of the activists and some of the groups that are supporting the immigrants would say they haven't because there's still many hundreds of kids who remain in shelters around the country.

MONTANARO: Weren't there more than 2,500 kids who were separated in the first place?

BURNETT: Right. And I think if you look at the total number, it's like 1,800 have been reunited. So that's a majority of them. But there's still - you know, the government has come back and said, well, there's all these parents that weren't eligible to be reunited for all these different reasons. You know, a few of them didn't pass their DNA tests; they weren't the real parents. Others were locked up in state or county jails because they had - were facing criminal convictions. Some others had been released into the interior of the United States, and the government can't find them. And then a large group, about 450, actually have already left the country. Many of those were deported. And that's the group that is of most concern to the attorneys...

KHALID: That's unbelievable.

BURNETT: ...Right now.

MONTANARO: So the government's making people pay to reunite their families with these kids. But what about the people who've been deported? You know, is the government going to try to work with other countries like El Salvador and Honduras to try to get those parents reunited with their kids? Or are they just like, you're on your own?

BURNETT: It's - Domenico, it's totally up in the air right now. And that's actually what we're waiting to hear. There's gonna be a really tense hearing this afternoon in San Diego in Judge Dana Sabraw's court. And that's the very thing they're going to address, which is, what is the government could do about these 450 odd parents who agreed to be deported? And many of them say they signed away, you know, the rights to be reunified with their kids. And the ACLU is saying, well, hold on a minute. You know, they didn't know what they were signing. They were confused. They don't - some of them don't speak English or Spanish. And so how are they going to get their kids back. That's the question. Is the government going to fly them back? What is unlikely is that the U.S. government is going to bring these deported, separated family members back to the U.S. I think Immigration and Customs Enforcement is really dead set against that.

KHALID: So, John, why don't you kind of just bring us up to speed on the actual reunification process? Because you mentioned, you know, that there are hundreds of children who are still being held in custody. But you've been down there reporting on the border. What does this look like just visually?

BURNETT: Sure. Well, the government has identified several detention centers - immigrant detention centers where they're bringing these kids from shelters all over the country. You know, there's a network of more than a hundred shelters from coast to coast. And so they're bussing, and they're flying these kids back. And then they reunite them with the parents, sometimes in a parking lot, sometimes in a sort of secure area. And then a lot of times, NGOs takeover and, you know, religious groups like Catholic charities - the one I was at in McAllen. And then they take them in for a couple of days, and they get to rest and reunite with their child and maybe get a new set of clothes and food.

But I was at the Port Isabel Detention Center, which is a really big one down on the coast of south Texas. And one of the women who was released from there and was awaiting emotionally a reunion with her son we're going to hear from. Her name is Maria. We're not using her last name because she fled gang violence on the Atlantic coast of Central America, and she's afraid for her family. And her 7-year-old son had been away from her for six weeks. And here she is.

MARIA: (Through interpreter) My son started to cry and to say, Mama, how long am I going to be in this place? How long? And then I told him, you're only going to be there two weeks my love. You'll see that soon God will take us out of here. But a long time passed, a long time, and it never happened. There were some women who spent a long time, up to 15, 20 days, where they didn't speak with their children. And they spend all of their time crying, these women. I told them, have strength, have courage because God is going to take us out of this place. And it's been a long time since I've talked with my son. I talked to him, like, three or four times and he said, Mama, you said I'd only be here for two weeks and I've been here more than a month already, he told me. And that made me cry. A kid needs his liberty. He needs to be free and to be with his mother. And to me, it's unjust what they're doing with these families.

BURNETT: So the good news is that Maria was reunited with her son last night around midnight, which barely made the government's drop deadline. But there's an arbitrary nature to these reunions that you don't hear from the government about. And for instance, some of them are being reunited and then sent right back into detention. I just talked to a volunteer who works in what's generously called a family detention center. And so far, they have 90 reunited mothers and children who've been sent into this detention center who are now facing deportation. And it's just a luck of the draw. Some of the reunited families are being released like Maria and her son with an ankle monitor and a promise to come and show up to asylum court later on. And some of them are going right back into detention, and they're on the fast track to deportation.

MONTANARO: You know, John, also in listening to the tape that you played, it's obviously very powerful stuff and very - you know, you capture the humanity there, which is kind of lost when there's some of the discussion in Washington about numbers. But, you know, it's funny to me because what I thought about was often in the fight against terrorism, people talk about the fight for hearts and minds. You know, I wonder, have you heard from any of these folks who came here looking for a better way of life and what this is going to do for their view of America and what it now means to them?

BURNETT: Oh, gosh, I think there are - you can't imagine - I mean, I've lived in Central America before, Domenico, and the conditions that they're leaving, the absolute poverty, the farms that are subsistence farms, the gangs that have taken over these, just literally have controlled rural Guatemala and Honduras now, and the police are just craven. You know, they won't defend people against them. They're on the payroll, too, of the narcos. And so I think even given all the problems that have happened and the international condemnation of Trump's zero-tolerance policy, I think they would stay here in a heartbeat.

KHALID: This all stemmed from an initial Trump administration policy. It was a zero-tolerance policy, right? And this is why they believe that separating the children from the families was necessary. And we saw political polling when this first popped up, and it looked like there was a majority of Americans who were not supportive of this. And now that, you know, it seems to some degree this is being rectified, I am curious what, if any, political repercussions you're seeing.

MONTANARO: Well you know there hasn't been a lot of polling obviously on any of this. But clearly, this has become an issue that Republicans wanted to be done away with. You know, that's the reason why President Trump stepped in and signed an executive order to say that these families would be reunited, that they would have to be not kept separately because of that political pressure. You know, he initially pointed at Congress and said Congress is going to have to change the law and that he wasn't going to do anything. Well, he got out in front of that and wound up signing this executive order. And we saw Congress actually not be able to get its act together and do anything to rectify this. So, you know, that's really what the problem for Republicans have been, especially these moderate Republicans in these swing districts.

Now, the issue that Republicans have done is that they've taken this and decided to run with it and say that if Democrats want to push some of these more extreme narratives, like abolish ICE - because that's what became the thing that people started talking about after the Democratic Socialist candidate in New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, won - that suddenly this abolish ICE movement became the thing. And that's something Republicans latched on to and said this is what Democrats really want to do. And it didn't become about family separations anymore. But when you talk about family separations, that's hugely unpopular.

BURNETT: But let me - you know, I want to flip that, Domenico. The audience that this drama is being played out for is not, in my opinion, as much Trump's base. It's Central America because all of these images and, you know, the emotional anguished story that we heard from Maria and, you know, the wailing of the children in the detention centers that were played in a press conference with Homeland Security Secretary Kristen Nielsen - you know, all of these problems they've had with family separation and reunification, I believe, is going to act as a deterrent, which is what the administration wanted in the first place.

John Kelly told me in an interview in his office this - family separation is meant as a deterrent. The kids will go to foster care or wherever. And these are horrific stories and images, and the Spanish-language media is going to transmit this all over Central America. And people are going to know that these are the consequences, you know, if you bring your kids with you and you cross into the U.S. So we'll have to see.

MONTANARO: And remember; Mike Pence went to Brazil to deliver exactly that message, to say, don't bring your children to the United States. Don't make that difficult drive, difficult journey. And I really want to emphasize that interview you had with John Kelly. In fact, I think we have some of what Kelly told you.


BURNETT: And so family separation stands as a pretty tough deterrent.

JOHN KELLY: It could be a tough deterrent, would be a tough deterrent - a much faster turnaround on asylum seekers.

BURNETT: Even though people say that's cruel and heartless to take a mother away from her children.

KELLY: Yeah. I think cruel and heartless - I wouldn't put it quite that way. The children will be taken care of.


KELLY: They're put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States. And this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.

BURNETT: And it's going to be really interesting to see now. You know, we get numbers every month of Border Patrol apprehensions of illegal crossers and also, you know, legal crossers at the ports of entry. And we know how many folks are asking for asylum - really interesting to see what happens as this plays out whether those numbers are going to drop now that they've seen the severe consequences that happen to parents who brought their kids with them.

KHALID: John, I have one final question before we let you go, and that is that there are still hundreds of children in custody, as you said - some families who were deemed ineligible to be reunited - right? - some parents. What happens to them now? Are those children going to be deported? Will they be held indefinitely? Do we know, and are there any repercussions because they have not necessarily met the deadline for anyone? I know that's, like, a three-part question.

BURNETT: Well, I mean, the kids are unique asylum seekers. They're autonomous cases in and of themselves. Even the babies are.

KHALID: Oh, wow.

BURNETT: And so there's been these incredible stories of, you know, infants in immigration court. In many cases, they're going to be put with foster families or with relatives. Most of the immigrants who are coming to the U.S. have relatives already here who are anxious to take care of these children who've gone through these really difficult journeys.

And so - and then some of the parents have gone back to Central America and said, leave my kids here. They'll have a better chance with, you know, their aunt who is in Miami than going back to the highlands of Guatemala. So the kids will not necessarily go back with the parents. They could stay here. Some will stay here, and then some probably - well, we don't know. Some may be transported by air back to their parents in their home countries. It's all playing out. We just don't know yet, Asma.

MONTANARO: You know, John, a lot of people asked me about the potential consequences here. You know, this judge Dana Sabraw, who you had mentioned - you know, a lot of people are wondering, are there any consequences for the government? She could obviously hold them in contempt, go after anybody, to even jail any agency officials. But the likelihood of that is pretty unlikely - right? - because she sees this as good faith.

BURNETT: Yeah. We heard yesterday from Lee Gelernt, who's the lead attorney on this with the ACLU. And he said, we're not looking for punitive measures here against the government. We want remedies. And what they want is for these kids in these families who were taken apart to be put back together.


KHALID: All right. Well, John, we look forward to hearing more of your reporting on the radio about this story - always have been a very big fan. Thank you for joining us.

BURNETT: Thanks for asking me, Asma. It was a pleasure.

MONTANARO: Thanks, John.

KHALID: And we will be back in your feeds again whenever there is news that you need to know about. I'm Asma Khalid, political reporter.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, political editor.

KHALID: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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