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Barbershop: Border Separations


We're going to start the program today in the Barbershop. That's where we talk about what's in the news and what's on people's minds. We wanted to address a topic that has provoked deep divisions and deep emotion in this country, especially in the last week. We're talking, of course, about immigration. This week, it has become clear that families are being separated as a matter of policy with children being held in detention centers.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also narrowed the grounds for seeking asylum in the U.S., making it far more difficult to seek asylum on the grounds of gang violence or domestic abuse. And the House is set to take up an immigration bill next week that would address the group known as DREAMers - people brought here without authorization as children. President Trump said yesterday that he would not sign the legislation only to have aides reverse course hours later.

We decided to try to take a step back to lay out the facts and get a clear understanding of how we got to this point and where things stand now. Our guests are Doris Meissner. She's a former head of the INS - the former Immigration and Naturalization Service. She was appointed under President Clinton. She's in our Washington, D.C., studios.

Thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: We're also joined by Annaluisa Padilla. She is an immigration lawyer. She's the president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She is in San Francisco. Ms. Padilla, thank you so much for joining us.


MARTIN: Finally, we have with us reporter Julian Aguilar from The Texas Tribune. He covers immigration and border security, and he is with us from El Paso, Texas. Julian, thank you so much for joining us as well.

JULIAN AGUILAR: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Julian, I'm going to start with you. Does your reporting indicate that is there a large increase in children being separated from their families at the border or not?

AGUILAR: Yes, I think by the Department of Homeland Security's own admission yesterday that from just the middle of April to the end of May, there's been about 2,000 children that have been separated from their families. And that's according to their numbers at the end of May. So we're in the middle of June now, so I'm assuming that those are increased at least by a few hundred by now.

They erected a tent city in Tornillo, Texas yesterday that is either for unaccompanied minors or for children that have been separated from their parents who are facing federal charges for illegal entry. And that popped up literally overnight. A state rep here said on Thursday that he wanted to tour the facility and get a timeline, and 24 hours later, according to his office - this is State Representative Cesar Blanco - there were about a hundred people there already, and it was up and running.

MARTIN: So, Annaluisa, I'm going to go to you on this. What are you and other members of the association being told about this?

PADILLA: Well, the administration is telling us that they were trying to close the loopholes in the laws that we currently have. And there is really no loophole in the laws. You know, we have basic asylum laws that set forth what the standards are for seeking asylum. And these individuals are - you know, have viable claims in presenting themselves at the border seeking protection. And that's the reality.

MARTIN: So, Doris Meissner, I'm going to bring you in here. The president has said and the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, has said that this is the law. The president has gone on to say that this is the democratic law...


MARTIN: And they are merely enforcing the law. Is that accurate in your understanding?

MEISSNER: Well, so here is the situation. What - the reference that they're making is to a court settlement called the Flores decision, which took place in 1997. I'm very familiar with it because I signed it. And it was a settlement of a long-standing piece of litigation that said that children would be detained in the least restrictive setting possible and for the shortest period of time in order to be placed with either a family member or another care situation.

That law - that - and that's not a law. It's a court settlement, but it has the force of law. And it has been expanded by another court judgment just a few years ago to apply both to children and to families with children. So it is valid to say that it has the force of law. It is not actually a law. It would have - to change it would require legislation, which is what the Congress is talking about.

However, it is a judgment on the part of the administration how to implement that court decision. And this implementation of the court decision that says children need to be separated from their parents because their parent is being prosecuted - that has never happened before in the past from the time that this settlement took place through other administrations - both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Everybody has recognized that this issue is a balancing act - that we, of course, have a responsibility to enforce the laws at the border. But to those who are especially vulnerable - young people and families - there are other measures that can be taken that, of course, enforce the law but are not so excessively harsh as to violate a principle so fundamental as young children being in detention for long periods of time.

MARTIN: So let's go to the question of asylum. This is another question that's been very much in the news this week - that the attorney general has imposed new limitations on people claiming asylum in the U.S. He said that victims of domestic violence and gang violence - he's overturned that as grounds for seeking asylum. It's my understanding that the attorney general is within his authority to make this decision.

MEISSNER: Well, the attorney general is within his authority to make this decision. The immigration courts are in the Department of Justice, and they are an administrative law body, and so they do - they report to the attorney general, the executive branch. They're not part of the judicial branch even though they carry out judicial functions. And the attorney general does have the authority to do what's called certifying case decisions to himself for review.

And so in the case of asylum and the types of cases that are coming forward now, it's clear that this administration and this attorney general has viewed the law as being lax - again, something they continually talk about in its application. And so he certified a case onto himself and issued a significant narrowing of the grounds for granting asylum in cases such as those we're seeing from Central America. That now stands as a precedent decision in the way that any court judgment would. And so immigration judges as well as asylum officers are bound by this narrower guidance, and it will make it much more difficult.

MARTIN: So, Julian, what is your sense of the people whom you've interviewed and as you've been covering this story? What - and I - forgive me if I'm asking you to estimate here, but how many people coming across - in your view and with - in your reporting - are coming across or seeking asylum because of domestic violence or because of gang violence?

AGUILAR: In my coverage, which is obviously the Texas-Mexico border, obviously, I deal with stories mainly about people from Mexico and Central America. The Texas Tribune went down to El Salvador and Chiapas and Oaxaca and Guatemala two years ago to sort of get on the ground there. And, again, it's anecdotal. I can't - we can't ask every single person. But those are the majority of the reasons that people are fleeing.

And what Commissioner Meissner said is - I think it's - really, what's being underreported is even before the attorney general decided to take this case and make this change himself to close a so-called loophole, statistics show that getting an asylum granted is slim to none. The Executive Office for Immigration Review - for some reason, they haven't updated their statistics. The most recent statistics are fiscal year 2016, the last year of the Obama administration. And, even that year, for example, folks from El Salvador - that year, there were more than 17,700 people from El Salvador that requested asylum. In that year, only 753 were granted. That's not to say that those were processed the same year. As the folks on the panel know that asylum cases can take years and years and years.

But that just shows just the slim chances anyway of seeking asylum before this change. Which means that a lot of these folks are going to be denied with - you know, at even greater rates. Or who's to say that they might change their mind and maybe stay in Mexico? We found some Central Americans that were staying in Mexico because they realized that getting to the United States was too much of a hassle, or they'd get sent back, and they didn't have money to cross two or three times.

Those are the majority of the cases - people that - obviously, in Mexico fleeing the cartel violence. You have journalists that have been seeking asylum for eight or nine years that literally showed up at the bridge saying, they're right behind me. They're going to kill me. But, apparently, that's not enough to qualify for one of these social groups or political persecution or - well, it's not enough to prove that the cops are unwilling or unable to protect somebody from persecution in those countries.

MARTIN: Doris, just final thoughts from you about this as a person, again, who's been working in this field for, you know, decades now. What are your thoughts about the current moment?

MEISSNER: I have to say this is a manufactured crisis. I mean, we have so many fewer people crossing the Southwest border today than we did 15 years ago. But the nature of the flow has changed. It's no longer a Mexican flow. It is now a flow from Central America that is a mixed flow. It has humanitarian cases, people that are possibly eligible for asylum as well as others who are not. And that requires making decisions on a case-by-case basis.

So the emphasis here should be in investing in our decision making systems, which are immigration courts and our asylum officers and deciding the cases. That is the way to have deterrence but, at the same time, fairness.

MARTIN: That's Doris Meissner. She's the former head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. She's now, as she just told us, an analyst with the Migration Policy Institute. We also heard from reporter Julian Aguilar from The Texas Tribune and Annaluisa Padilla, who's president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Thank you all so much for speaking with us today.

PADILLA: Thank you so much.

MEISSNER: Thank you.

AGUILAR: Thanks for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MESTIS' "LUZ Y CIELO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.