SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We begin this hour with a report from our investigations team. It's about a federal office that invites migrants to file complaints about their treatment. But some say the office is powerless, and individual complaints it hears are often ignored. NPR and the Center for Public Integrity have reviewed hundreds of filings at the Department of Homeland Security's Civil Rights Office. About a hundred people work there. Their job is to protect the rights of people who deal with DHS and its many agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol. Here's NPR's Alison Kodjak.
ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: Nadia Pulido was running from the father of her daughter when she presented herself at the border crossing in Nogales, Ariz., and asked for protection.
NADIA PULIDO: I ran from Mexico to seek for help and, you know, to have peace in our lives and our minds.
KODJAK: She had her two children with her - a 3-year-old boy and a 6-year-old daughter who's blind. The girl's father, Pulido says, beat her and kicked her while she was pregnant and held a gun to her head. She told U.S. authorities that she's afraid he'll kill her. So she asked for asylum.
PULIDO: First, they told me that I was credible, that I had enough evidence from Mexico, from the police department where I had - police reports where I've been threatened.
KODJAK: But Pulido's record got in the way. When she was a small child, she was brought from Mexico undocumented to California. She went through elementary, middle and high school in San Bernardino. When she was 22, she got into trouble. And, in 2004, she pleaded guilty to robbery and was deported. So just a few days after she turned herself over to border agents last spring, she was told they were sending her to detention and taking her kids. She had one hour to prepare the children for the separation.
PULIDO: I was telling them that, you know, I needed to go sign some paperwork and that they were going to go to a daycare and that they were just going to have fun. And then we were going to meet up pretty soon in a couple hours. But couple hours turned into months, painful months.
KODJAK: Pulido's children languished for more than three months in a shelter for unaccompanied children run by the Department of Health and Human Services, even though Pulido's new American husband was ready to take them home. Maite Garcia, the children's lawyer, filed a complaint to the Department of Homeland Security's internal watchdog - the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, where those 100 people work. She charged that the government can't adequately care for a blind child and asked that they be released to their new stepfather in Arizona. So what did the office do? Not much, according to Garcia.
MAITE GARCIA: Maybe a couple weeks after I filed the complaint, I did receive a response. And the response appeared to me to be a form letter. Other than that, nothing.
KODJAK: If the department had taken the complaint, seriously, she says, there could have been a different outcome.
GARCIA: There are alternatives to detention. And, in this particular case, I think what we would've liked to see is that Ms. Pulido be released with her children and some sort of condition be placed on her rather than separating them and detaining them.
KODJAK: Garcia is an attorney with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Phoenix. The group has filed dozens of such complaints and received little to no response. The Pulido complaint shows up on Page 276 of a 366-page spreadsheet, chronicling story after story of kids taken from their parents at the Southern border in just the first half of last year. An independent journalist obtained the document from DHS through a Freedom of Information request and provided it to the Center for Public Integrity and NPR.
About 95% of those nearly 850 complaints to DHS came not from migrant families, but from another branch of the federal government - the Department of Health and Human Services. And 147 were launched in the months before the Trump administration announced its zero-tolerance policy that was designed to separate children from their migrant parents. The Civil Rights Office actually invites people to file such complaints.
ELIZABETH JORDAN: They are well-meaning. I think that they don't have much effectiveness.
KODJAK: Critics like Elizabeth Jordan say the office is often where complaints go to die. She's a lawyer in Colorado who represented a migrant woman whose deaf and mute son was held apart from her in a government shelter for three months with no communication. She says the agency has little to no power, and it can be ignored with impunity. Scott Shuchart, who was a senior adviser in the Civil Rights Office at the time, grew to share that view.
SCOTT SHUCHART: The official policy of the administration was to violate people's rights on purpose.
KODJAK: He says the Trump administration went ahead and instituted a zero-tolerance policy over the objections of its civil rights staff. He says several staffers sent a memo to the office's leader, Cameron Quinn, warning that DHS was likely violating the law by taking people's children from them. Quinn and the DHS general counsel dismissed their concerns, he says.
SHUCHART: It became clear that our office did not have the political support to be very institutionally effective.
KODJAK: Shuchart resigned in protest a few weeks later. Quinn declined to be interviewed for this story. A DHS spokeswoman said in an email that the Civil Rights Office doesn't have the authority to address specific complaints. Instead, it recommends policy changes if it sees patterns of problems. Some people in the Department of Homeland Security say the Civil Rights Office and other watchdogs should try to flex their muscles more.
Ellen Gallagher, a lawyer who used to work for the Civil Rights Office became a whistleblower because she was opposed to the agency's treatment of detainees. She believed the Civil Rights Office has the legal authority to order remedies in response to complaints, especially in cases involving disabled children, like Nadia Pulido's daughter. But she says the staff seems more concerned with keeping good relationships with ICE and the Border Patrol than with protecting migrants' rights.
ELLEN GALLAGHER: Put yourself in the shoes of the person who's sitting in the cell or who's separated from their parent or who's wondering where their child is, you know? That was what, to me, was so out of whack. It was not a focus on the people who you were supposed to be serving.
KODJAK: It was weeks after Maite Garcia got the form letter from the Civil Rights Office before the Pulido children were finally released to their stepfather. That followed a federal judge's order that the Trump administration reunite all families it had separated. It wasn't the result of anything the watchdog did, she says. By then, the damage had been done.
PULIDO: The first time I got to see Pablo, after six months being separated, he didn't recognize me. It was hard. He didn't want to hug me because he didn't recognize me.
KODJAK: Nadia Pulido's petition for asylum was denied so she and her family are back in Mexico, still hiding. The kids could have tried for asylum on their own, but Garcia says they want to be with their mother, even though they're living in fear. Alison Kodjak, NPR News.
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