HHS: 'Under 3,000' Migrant Children Separated From Parents In Custody
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Since the implementation of the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy, migrants crossing the southwest border have dropped by 18 percent.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
And today, Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar said the government will comply with a court order to reunite immigrant children with their parents.
KELLY: That's right. The government faces a deadline - next Tuesday - to reunite children under the age of 5 with parents who are in custody. NPR's Richard Gonzales has been following the status of those children.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Well, according to Secretary Azar, overall there are 11,800 minors in the care of Health and Human Services.
GONZALES: Eighty percent of those are teenagers, mostly males who crossed the border on their own. He also said that his agency has identified under 3,000 children who may have been separated from their purported parents, and those parents are in the custody of Homeland Security. Of those 3,000 minors, about 100 are under the age of 5, and they are in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Azar said his agency has undertaken a manual review of all the case files and all the information shared by Homeland Security about who the parents are.
KELLY: And when you say there's under 3,000, is that a higher number than we had previously thought? I mean, we've been using numbers of something around 2,000.
GONZALES: That is on the higher side, but the numbers have always been a little fudgy. We were - assumed that there were between 2,500 to about 3,000.
KELLY: OK. Bring us up to speed on what deadlines exactly the administration is facing to get these children back with their parents.
GONZALES: Well, on June 26, a federal judge in San Diego ruled that the administration has to reunite children with parents. And for children under the age of 5, the deadline is next Tuesday. For children between the ages of 5 through 17, the deadline is July 26. Azar stressed what he called an all-hands-on-deck effort to verify parentage, go through all the files and make sure that the child was separated by the government. It's important to keep in mind that some of these children were in the care of HHS even before the administration announced its zero tolerance policy.
KELLY: Oh, so some of these kids have been in custody for months.
GONZALES: That's correct.
GONZALES: And because of the time constraints put on them by the court - and these time constraints Azar repeatedly characterized as extreme and artificial - they are doing DNA testing on the kids to confirm their biological parents.
KELLY: So, Richard, what about the central question of whether the government will be able to meet the deadline which is coming up very fast - next Tuesday - for reuniting the youngest kids with their parents?
GONZALES: Right. Azar said they will comply with that court order. He said that they're moving parents in ICE custody to facilities that are closer to the children that they have identified. They have not moved kids in with parents yet, but they will do everything they can to comply with the court order.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALEX AZAR: With respect to the court's order of reunifying children in our care with parents who remain in ICE custody, that is a novel proposition because we've got a court order that requires at DHS, after 20 days, that you separate children from families in ICE custody and send them to us. We now have a more recent court order requiring that we send those kids back to DHS in ICE custody indefinitely. Now, of course our position is that that more recent order trumps the previous order.
KELLY: I'm listening to that, Richard, and I'm still confused over what exactly the government plan is for going forward here.
GONZALES: It is confusing. In essence what he's describing is setting up the scenario for another legal battle. Under the Florida settlement, children can't be detained for more than 20 days. But the Justice Department has petitioned in a separate court case that the government should be allowed to hold children with their parents indefinitely. That sets up a friction that has to be taken care of.
KELLY: All right, Richard Gonzales updating us on the latest, thanks so much.
GONZALES: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. 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.