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Talks Of Family Separation Spur Following A Migrant Caravan Heading For The U.S. Border


OK, back now to questions about what President Trump is threatening to do about this caravan, and for that, let's bring in NPR's John Burnett. He's in Austin. Hi, John.


KELLY: Basic question - can the president stop this caravan, these people from entering the U.S.?

BURNETT: Well, it's hard to say because this has happened before. Last spring when several busloads of Central American immigrants arrived at the Tijuana port of entry in Southern California, they were able to cross the international port of entry and ask for asylum, and they were allowed in. So as we heard, Trump tweeted this morning that he's going to deploy troops to block the border. Well, we don't really know what that means.

KELLY: But legally, what powers does he have to try to block the border?

BURNETT: Well, let's go back quite a few years to President Woodrow Wilson. He said active-duty troops to the border during the Mexican Revolution to stop raiders from coming across into border states. But today we're talking about families with small children seeking asylum. There are longstanding federal laws that give protection to immigrants who qualify as refugees. They have the right to cross at legal ports of entry and ask for asylum. Whether troops could be sent to the international bridges to block them is an interesting question. The Posse Comitatus Act prevents the military from being used for civilian law enforcement.

KELLY: It's interesting that the most relevant precedent you're citing that - you have to go back a hundred years to Woodrow Wilson.


KELLY: Let me ask you this. The Trump administration frames all of this in terms of crisis, that the situation at the border is a crisis and so appropriate measures are required. Is the situation at the border right now a crisis?

BURNETT: Well, a Homeland Security spokesperson told me that they're compiling the year-end figures right now, and she says the numbers of immigrant families arriving at the border will likely break records on a monthly basis. Now, it's important to keep this in context, Mary Louise, because back in 2000, they were arresting 1 1/2 million undocumented immigrants a year. So far this year, it's been under 400,000. But still the Trump administration is upset and frustrated. They continue to blame everything on Congress for allowing what they call catch and release loopholes in the law. The DHS spokesman told me that the agency is examining all options to secure the border.

KELLY: And when that spokesperson talks about all options, family separation is back on the table, this policy that was so controversial that the president had to walk back and reverse it when they tried that earlier this year.

BURNETT: And so now Homeland Security is considering a new sort of watered-down form of family separation but also to act as a deterrent to families thinking about crossing such as those in the caravan right now. Here's the president on the South Lawn over the weekend.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If they feel there's separation, in many cases, they don't come.

KELLY: That of course is the case that the administration made when they rolled out the family separation policy...


KELLY: ...Earlier this year. So what would a watered-down version look like?

BURNETT: Well, they're talking about something called a binary choice. Detained families with their children would have two options. One, they could give their kids up to a government youth shelter where the kids would eventually be sponsored by a relative or a foster family who are already here in the U.S. And option two, they could keep their kids with them in detention indefinitely until their asylum case is resolved. Currently a court ruling says the kids can't be locked up with their parents for more than three weeks.

KELLY: Right.

BURNETT: This would extend that. And immigrant advocates are appalled. Here's Michelle Brane of the Women's Refugee Commission on a call with reporters yesterday.


MICHELLE BRANE: Let's be clear. The objective of this binary choice policy that the administration is considering is to punish and deter families from seeking protection. This is round two of the administration's family separation policy.

KELLY: John Burnett, round two or watered-down, whatever we want to call this revisiting of family separation - the same challenges are there - right? - I mean, for example, if they want to ramp up detention of immigrant families, the question of where they would put all these families.

BURNETT: Right. And of course the binary choice is still being considered. It's not policy yet. But if they put it into practice, the question is, where would they detain all these families? Currently there are a little over 3,000 spots for family members in what are called special family residential centers. But you're talking about thousands of these immigrant families that are arrested every week at the Southwest border these days. The government doesn't have enough detention beds. So for the foreseeable future, you'll see the continuation of families being arrested. They're processed for a few days. And then most are released with ankle monitors with their kids to show up for immigration court. And that's what's been bedeviling the Trump administration all along.

KELLY: NPR's John Burnett reporting - thank you, John.

BURNETT: You bet, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.