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After Reunification Deadlines, A Plan To Transfer Families To Detention Centers


While demonstrators are taking to the streets today to express their anger over the separation of families crossing the border, the Trump administration last night told a judge it intends to resolve the issue by detaining families together for the duration of their immigration proceedings, presumably in camps on military bases. Under a long-standing settlement agreement, children were not supposed to be held in detention for longer than 20 days. But immigration procedures typically take much longer than that. We're trying to understand how this apparent conflict and how it might be be resolved, so for one perspective, we called Sarah Plastino in Denver. She's a lawyer for the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network. She's representing clients in the ICE detention facility in Aurora, Colo. And I asked her how she and her colleagues are responding to last night's announcement.

SARAH PLASTINO: It is our view that the Flores agreement does not permit indefinite detention of children. In fact, the whole spirit of the Flores agreement is to implement protections to prevent children from being in adult jails.

MARTIN: But the administration seems to be arguing that there's a sort of controlling legal authority that supersedes the Flores settlement, and I'm just trying to understand how that is going to be resolved.

PLASTINO: Well, so a district court in California issued an injunction requiring the Trump administration to reunite families. And, rather than implementing that injunction by releasing families, they're instead choosing to keep them detained. So they're basically saying that the injunction actually gives them the legal authority to continue to detain the children

MARTIN: According to federal immigration officials, so far, about 500 children have been reunited with their parents. Is that true as far as you know?

PLASTINO: Well, what we don't know is actually who the children have been reunited with. The language that the government used in those announcements was very vague. They said reunite with their families. They did not specifically say parents. And the process for reuniting children from the Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters generally reunites them with any caretaker who is approved. And so these children may very well have been released to someone other than their parents, and their parents may very well still continue to be in adult ICE custody.

MARTIN: Have any of your clients or any of your colleagues' clients been reunited with their children?

PLASTINO: No. And we are serving dozens of parents.

MARTIN: I understand that you have one client who's now out of detention, and she's in the process of applying for asylum. Do you know whether she'll be able to get her children back?

PLASTINO: It's still an open question. So the injunction actually requires that her child be released now that she herself was released from ICE custody. But she's been told that in order to have her child, she will have to go through the usual reunification process when any adult applies to be a sponsor for a child in government care, which we know is a lengthy process that can take a month or more and is not guaranteed. And, ultimately, she was told that she even has to pay for her child's flight to be reunited with her.

MARTIN: How long has she been separated from her child?

PLASTINO: For about six weeks.

MARTIN: Six weeks - and how long could it be before she is reunited with her child or her children?

PLASTINO: We really don't know. The reunification process can take a very long time. They have to go through fingerprinting. It's not guaranteed. It even opens up other adults in the household to be placed on ICE's radar. And so this is just business as usual for adults seeking to reunify with children in the shelters. This is no additional special process in place for parents to be reunited with their children.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that a federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction ordering the government to quickly reunite migrant children with their parents, saying that children separated from their families must be returned within 30 days and allowing just 14 days for the return of children under age 5. But what I think I heard you say is that there has really been, in your view, and from what you can see, no real effort to do that other than the establishing of a hotline. Is that correct?

PLASTINO: Yes. That's absolutely correct. We have not seen any mechanism for the government to be actively reuniting families. The only mechanism we've seen is a hotline for parents to affirmatively call from jail to find out the location of their children and to request phone calls with them.

MARTIN: So what is the next step here? As we said, you know, earlier, the administration has said that it is moving forward with these plans to detain families together. What will you do?

PLASTINO: What we expect will likely happen is an en masse transfer of adults from adult detention centers to family detention centers. And they'll most likely be transferred away from their attorneys. They'll be located in remote areas without lawyers or services for the families. And so, at this point, we are trying our best to get our clients out of ICE detention before that transfer might happen. But yes, we're going to have to mobilize as a community as best we can to really divert resources into the new locations where the families are being detained.

MARTIN: That's Sarah Plastino. She is a senior staff attorney with the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network. We talked with her from Denver.

Sarah Plastino, thanks so much for talking to us.

PLASTINO: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.