How Obama, Trump and Biden Have Dealt with Immigration and Family Separation : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders It's been a few years now since President Trump adopted (and then later reversed) his administration's zero-tolerance policy that separated parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border. But what's happened to those families since? And what is President Biden doing now to help? Sam talks to Aura Bogado, senior investigative reporter and producer at Reveal, about how family separation, which has reaches back to the Obama administration, has affected a system that Aura says is not quite broken... but is unjust.

You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.

The Human Cost of Family Separation

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAM SANDERS, HOST:

You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. In this episode, immigration.

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NORAH O'DONNELL: The battle over the Trump Administration's zero-tolerance policy on immigration is intensifying, with lawmakers in both parties condemning it as cruel and inhumane.

SANDERS: Now, let's go back a few years to 2018 - the spring of 2018, to be exact. That was when President Trump adopted a so-called zero-tolerance policy on immigration. This policy would separate families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Children were separated from their parents between April 19.

SANDERS: The Trump White House said that they wanted these separations to be a deterrent to other people thinking about crossing. But as we now know, the Trump administration didn't actually have a plan to reunite those families that had separated.

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UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: Tonight...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: ...Outrage across the country.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Do you agree that we need to take care of those children?

MICHAEL BURGESS: We are taking care of those children. Your tax...

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ERIN BURNETT: Good evening. I'm Erin Burnett. "OutFront" tonight, chaos. More than 28 hours after President Trump signed an executive order to end his own policy of separating parents and children at the southern border of the United States, the kids, as far as we know, are still separated. And no one in the administration...

SANDERS: Yeah, President Trump ended his own policy later that summer just months after putting that policy into place. That policy may have ended quickly, but those images remain - the photos of children behind chain-link fencing, the audio of children crying for their parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN CRYING)

SANDERS: This was and still is an incredibly heartbreaking story. And it will probably leave a mark on this country and the Trump presidency for decades to come. Right now, Trump's successor, Joe Biden, he says he is trying to fix it all.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're going to work to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families, their mothers and fathers at the border and with no plan, none whatsoever.

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SANDERS: Sounds great, right? But as soon as you really start to look, you realize Donald Trump was not alone. That policy of family separation, in some cases, it happened before Trump as well.

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DONALD TRUMP: They come in through...

KRISTEN WELKER: But how will you reunite these kids with their families, Mr. President?

TRUMP: But let me just tell you, they built cages. You know, they used to say I built the cages. And then they had a picture in a certain newspaper. And it was a picture of these horrible cages. And they said, look at these cages. President Trump built them. And then it was determined they were built in 2014. That was him.

WELKER: Do you have a plan to reunite the kids?

SANDERS: That him is former President Barack Obama. And on this one, Trump is right - sort of. Those cages were built under the Obama administration to deal with an overflow of migrants coming from Central America.

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BARACK OBAMA: So that is our direct message to the families in Central America. Do not send your children to the borders. If they do make it, they'll get sent back. More importantly...

SANDERS: Now, we have to be clear here. Trump's zero-tolerance policy, it was very different than Obama's.

AURA BOGADO: They absolutely are different.

SANDERS: That is Aura Bogado. She's a senior investigative reporter and producer at "Reveal." And Aura's been covering immigration for more than 10 years.

BOGADO: The Obama administration was separating families when they believed that the parent wasn't the parent or when they believed that the guardian wasn't the guardian...

SANDERS: Got you.

BOGADO: ...Or when there were families, as you know - I mean, a lot of us have grown up with, like, a grandparent or an aunt or someone who's not, like, the biological parent. But that kinship sort of isn't honored at the border. And so that's always happened. What Trump was doing was separating each and every single family, each and every single parent from a child, everybody. Everybody was being separated.

SANDERS: So this episode, we talk with Aura about what's going on now that Biden's in charge, why our immigration system is the way it is and what's happened to those kids who were separated from their families. And Aura tells us how and why some kids are still being separated from family and loved ones at the southern border right now. Stay with us.

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SANDERS: So eventually, the Trump White House is so shamed by some of the images coming out of this separation policy that they kind of stop doing that. But now, under President Biden, there's still an issue of families being separated. But it's different. I've been seeing headlines that families are now separating voluntarily in Mexico before they send children across the border to seek asylum. And that is something that's not unique to Biden, but it's happening more under President Biden.

BOGADO: Right. So President Biden is still using Title 42, which is a - it has to do with public health, to say we cannot let families in. The border is closed, we keep hearing. Well, it is not fully closed because they have let in a lot of families. But, yeah, they're not allowing a lot - a huge number of families into the country because there is this public health crisis. There's - the pandemic is ongoing. So that's a pretext by which families aren't being allowed in.

And so, yes, some families are making the decision, look; we are the adults. We're going to stay here in Mexico because we know we can't enter at this time, but we're going to send our child in unaccompanied without a parent into the United States. There usually is a sponsor, a family member, someone here in the United States that then can hopefully eventually take care of that child. But that's the way that that kind of family separation is working.

SANDERS: Got you. And so right now, are there more, you know, unaccompanied kids showing up? Are there more families showing up? Is there more traffic than usual at the border? And if so, why? Because some stories say, oh, it's a crisis and a surge, and others I see say, actually, no, it's not.

BOGADO: So it's not unprecedented. Reasons why - which people come at this time - some of that is informed really by religion. Some of it is informed by climate, like when is it not too cold but not too hot to cross. And a lot of the world is seeing that the pandemic will likely end soon, feels maybe a little safer to be out and about.

In terms of a surge, a crisis, I think there's a humanitarian crisis for which the Biden administration could have prepared and did not do so. We're two months into this administration, and you could see that two ways. You know, a lot of people will say, he's only been in office two months, and he's dealing with everything that his predecessor left behind. Well, the predecessor before that was Obama, and he also left a lot of stuff behind that was never resolved. And so this idea that it's a crisis and we have to hold children now in convention centers and military barracks - did that have to happen? I don't think so. I just - to me, it just reads like bad planning.

SANDERS: Looking at what's happening at the border right now and the way in which Americans are or aren't talking about it, what do you think is the biggest misconception right now amongst the American public about what's really going on in terms of immigration at the border?

BOGADO: Something that I hear pretty often is that this is a broken system. I hear it from the administration.

SANDERS: Yeah.

BOGADO: I see reporters writing about it. I don't think it's a broken system. Somebody that I really admire says that a broken system is one whose outcomes cannot be measured. You can measure all of the numbers. The federal government is sending reporters each and every single day. How many kids are in Border Patrol custody? How many kids have been transferred? How many - every new convention center. We know all of the numbers down to the very digit. That's why Trump's family separation was so kind of horrific, because I do think that that was a horrific and broken system because you couldn't - there was such poor record-keeping.

SANDERS: You couldn't track the kids.

BOGADO: You couldn't. You couldn't. And so that absolutely was broken. I mean, there are still kids that may never be reunited with their families because it just - that's just broken.

SANDERS: Yeah.

BOGADO: But in general, I don't think that this is a broken system. I think that this is a system whose measured outcomes a lot of people don't like. And that's a really, really big difference.

SANDERS: Yeah.

BOGADO: I think that if you don't like the outcomes of what you see, there is totally a way to fix it.

SANDERS: (Unintelligible), yeah.

BOGADO: And part of that is just, you know, realizing that there are certain things that you can predict, like a lot of people at the border, and fixing the system so that you don't get 5,000 kids that are stuck in a cell with Mylar blankets.

SANDERS: Yeah. How many of those children are in the U.S. right now? You know, they are unaccompanied. How many are here, and what's most likely going to happen to them?

BOGADO: Well, there are about 5,000 kids in Border Patrol right now and about close to 15,000 in shelters. And what's going to happen to them is what happens to - you know, most kids have a very, very common trajectory, which is that they either go to a port of entry and say, I am seeking asylum, or they cross in a place where they are apprehended by Border Patrol and say the same thing, I'm seeking asylum.

They are processed through those places where you see the kids with Mylar blankets. You know, they have those blankets on. It's very cold in these facilities. They're called hieleras. That's the Spanish-language word for an ice box. But I've also heard kids from other countries. I know a Russian kid that, like, he refers to it as a hielera, right? That word has kind of become universal for what those places are 'cause they're so freezing.

SANDERS: Wow.

BOGADO: You're not...

SANDERS: How cold? How cold?

BOGADO: I don't know. You know, CBP will say, like, oh, it's these people come from tropical areas, so they're not used to air conditioner.

SANDERS: Wow.

BOGADO: These people, you know, were just out in the desert, and so it's the shock of - but none of that seems true. I don't think there's ever been any evidence that Border Patrol really lowers the temperature down to freezing. But kids describe it as freezing - kids and adults. And I don't think the term hielera would stick if it wasn't so freezing because another Border Patrol facility that people refer to are perreras, which are - it would be the Spanish-language word for a dog kennel.

SANDERS: Oh, my God.

BOGADO: Those are not - yeah, 'cause they're cages. I mean, they're literally cages, right? And so children are not supposed to be there for more than 72 hours. We know right now that they are being kept for longer than 72 hours. I'm going to safely assume from what I know that at least 3,000 kids at this moment have spent more than 72 hours in there.

SANDERS: Wow.

BOGADO: And this is also not new. I mean, I have numbers for this going back to Obama, through the Trump administration. Kids just sometimes stay in there.

SANDERS: Coming up, the story of one child who got stuck in the immigration system for seven years.

What has the Biden administration promised so far on immigration, and what has been your reaction to it as someone who knows this beat quite well?

BOGADO: Well, Biden campaigned on sort of being softer on immigration, and we see that unaccompanied minors are being let into the country. I think that there are more promises Biden, the candidate, made that I'm not sure how he's going to deliver. I don't know that he'll be able to deliver on much. I see that he has surrounded himself with a lot of the Obama alums. And Obama still remains the president who has deported more people than any other president.

SANDERS: Yeah.

BOGADO: And so if you have the alums that helped deport 3 million people, we'll see. We'll see what's different.

SANDERS: I want to go back to the children that we were talking about earlier. What happens to children who cross and who are unaccompanied and who can't reunite, can't end up with family? Do we know, one, how many of those children are facing that reality right now, and what usually happens to them?

BOGADO: I don't know the number right now, but what happens is that the refugee agency that sponsors the shelters - that a child can be in the sort of indefinite-ish detention of that agency. And I say indefinite-ish because it's until the age that they turn 18 because at that point, you're an adult. And so if no one sponsored you, if the United States hasn't done its part to find you asylum relief or other forms of relief that also exist, particularly for children, that runs out the child - the moment the child turns 18, those children then wind up in ICE custody.

SANDERS: For children who come - let's say they're 11 or 12. How long usually does the government actively look for a sponsor for these folks before kind of - I don't know - washing their hands of them?

BOGADO: Yeah. For the most part, the refugee agency really tries to reunite the child with the family within a few weeks, three months at most, right?

SANDERS: OK.

BOGADO: What we see, though, is that a lot of kids then are there for a year or longer. I can tell you anecdotally, just from having talked to kids and to families a really long time, it's kind of at that two-, three-, four-week mark when kids start to have a pretty hard time in shelter - right? - because we say shelter, but it's - you know, it can feel like a very confining place. That's where you go to school. That's where you have your legal consult if you're being provided with any kind of legal aid. That's where you eat. That's where you sleep. That's where you play in some kind of a, you know, big backyard or maybe a gym kind of thing, right? So that's where, like, your entire life is lived. You're going to have one or maybe two calls a week with a family member, and then that's it. And so kids come and go, staff comes and goes. And then meanwhile, you stay.

SANDERS: Yeah.

BOGADO: And so the desperation, you know, the point at which kids start to feel a little bit like, wait; am I going to be stuck here?

SANDERS: What's wrong with me? Well, I'm also sure they're like, what did I do wrong? Why don't they want me?

BOGADO: Yeah.

SANDERS: Why won't - you know, someone's not picking me.

BOGADO: Exactly, exactly.

SANDERS: What - is this my fault?

BOGADO: Yeah. Someone who's now a young adult, but she told me recently that she was in an elevator last year. And at some point, she realized, like, it was kind of stuck for a little while, and she just had that terror of, like, wait; am I going to be stuck in this elevator? And then it just jumped up and, you know, and everything was fine. But she related that to, you know, having spent a long time in shelter. She's like, right around a month or so, it was the first time I realized, like, wait; are they not going to give me back to my family? You know, it just dawns upon you at some point that, like, you really can get stuck in there. You don't think about it necessarily at first. Most kids don't. But then at some point, like, oh, wait.

SANDERS: When you talk about children being reunited with family, is it usually family in the U.S. or family back in Central and Latin America?

BOGADO: Yeah, I'm talking about family in the U.S.

SANDERS: OK.

BOGADO: So it usually - it will be either a parent or a close relative - so, like, a cousin, a brother, a sister, an aunt, an uncle. But, you know, sometimes, children are deported. It's usually not that quick. Deportation itself is just a long civil process. It takes a long time.

SANDERS: Yeah.

BOGADO: Sometimes, kids ask to be deported, you know, for...

SANDERS: Really?

BOGADO: Oh, yeah, yeah. It's called voluntary departure. And according to the record, you know, some kids that are very - you get 4-year-olds that are asking for voluntary departure.

SANDERS: Wow. What is the longest you've heard of a child who came unaccompanied being stuck in ICE custody?

BOGADO: Yeah. Yeah, so it's not ICE custody.

SANDERS: I'm sorry.

BOGADO: It's the Refugee...

SANDERS: Refugees. OK. I apologize.

BOGADO: No, it's fine 'cause there's so many agencies.

SANDERS: I know. I know.

BOGADO: It's fine. It's fine. You know, my investigation that I worked on for a year that we published last year was the story of a child who was separated from her family from the age of 10 to the age of 17...

SANDERS: Wow.

BOGADO: ...Was stuck in just different programs from - you know, she went from Oregon to Massachusetts to Florida to Texas to New York, back to Texas, back to Oregon. I mean, this girl is, like, better traveled than most teenagers I've met. You know, now she's back in Honduras. She was on a lot of psychotropics when she was here. She is not taking any of those now. She's had a hard time kind of readjusting to life and having, like, some sense of freedom. You know, like, just think about, like, all of those teenage years. Like, she didn't learn how to flirt. She didn't learn how to, like, say no to a parental figure. She didn't learn how to, like, negotiate to get something that you want. She - you know, it just was, like, a very difficult experience for her - again, 10 to 17. Think about all of just the social...

SANDERS: All that you miss. Yeah.

BOGADO: Yeah.

SANDERS: What - so she's in Honduras again, you said?

BOGADO: She is. They deported her in the middle of the pandemic last summer.

SANDERS: Have you talked to her?

BOGADO: Yeah. Yeah, we're still in touch. She's had a pretty hard time. She deeply regrets her decision to ask to be deported.

SANDERS: Really?

BOGADO: She very much wants to be back in the United States.

SANDERS: Do you think she'll try again?

BOGADO: I think she will, yeah.

SANDERS: Yeah.

BOGADO: Yeah.

SANDERS: It's heartbreaking. So, you know, we talked earlier about how, in some ways, our immigration system isn't a, quote-unquote, "broken system" because it functions, and it works, and it moves people to and fro, and you can track and see what's going where. In many ways, the system functions. But hearing you talk about this young woman's story - it's heartbreaking, and it doesn't seem fair. So if we can't call our immigration system broken, what are the best words you would say to describe this system right now?

BOGADO: I think that there are a lot of features of this system that are very unjust. And given that my focus is migrant children, it is particularly unjust to migrant children - and for me, the key difference being that these are years you'd never get back. You know, the way that we learn and just, really, the way that we become a human being in the world, all of the social cues - you get a kind of very special moment to be a kid. And that - a lot of kids are being deprived of that by the system. So I think that it does work. We don't like its outcomes, but I do think that a lot of it is very unjust.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, and it's just like you say it, and it's so simple. But we have to remember these are just kids. I mean, like, at a certain point, you've got to show some humanity to the children, regardless of where they're from, where they are and how they got there. They're kids. They're kids.

BOGADO: Yeah.

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SANDERS: Thanks again to Aura Bogado. She's a senior investigative reporter and producer at "Reveal." You can check out more of Aura's work, including that story of that 17-year-old girl from Honduras, at revealnews.org.

All right, listeners, do not forget this Friday, we're back with another episode. And for that one, we want to hear you share the best things that have happened to you all week. You know how it goes. You can record yourself on your phone and then email that sound file to me. The email address is samsanders@npr.org. Pretty straightforward - samsanders@npr.org. All right. Until Friday. Thank y'all for listening. I'm Sam Sanders, and we'll talk soon.

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