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Feds Alter Policies To Ease Overcrowding In Migrant Shelters


Some of the thousands of migrant children detained along the U.S.-Mexico border may get to spend Christmas with their families this year.


Yeah. Let's remember, last week, we reported that government-contracted shelters around the country were holding nearly 15,000 migrant children. We also found that the vetting of sponsor families created this bottleneck that was resulting in crowding at these shelters. Well, now the Trump administration is changing its policies to speed up the release of these children.

KING: NPR's John Burnett is on the line from Austin, Texas. He's been breaking news on this story. Good morning, John.


KING: So what exactly is changing now?

BURNETT: Well, the Department of Health and Human Services, which is in charge of the care of the migrant kids, admits that a policy that was supposed to protect these children has just gone too far. The agency had changed the way it vets potential sponsors who step forward to receive a migrant child. These sponsors are usually adult family members who already live in the U.S. and the child will go to live with them during the time their asylum case is pending in immigration court. So back in June, HHS started doing intensive background checks on everyone who lives in the household - you know, that could be 13 people...

KING: Yeah.

BURNETT: ...Required fingerprinting and a criminal background check to see if anybody was a child molester or worse. And that took weeks and weeks. Meanwhile, the kids were languishing in these growing shelters, and child welfare experts say detention is bad for kids, both mentally and physically. So now these child safety officials will go back to just vetting the sponsor and not everybody in the household.

KING: Making the process a lot easier. You've reported that there are around 15,000 kids in U.S. custody. How many of them will this affect?

BURNETT: Well, I spoke with Lynn Johnson yesterday. She's the HHS assistant secretary of Administration for Children and Families. And she said she's hopeful that 2,000 children who are now in custody could be released in the next four to five days to go join a loved one. These are kids who are waiting to be released after their sponsors have already passed the vetting. It will certainly take longer for all the rest, and we'll be watching. But Johnson was blunt. She said in an interview the extra vetting hadn't paid off. All it accomplished was to delay the children's release from federal custody.

LYNN JOHNSON: And we're finding that it's not adding anything to the protection or the safety for these children. The children should be home with their parents. The government makes lousy parents.

KING: Lousy parents. John, last week, you reported on a tent city in west Texas that was holding a bunch of these kids, and it sounded like a pretty terrible situation. There was a lot of overcrowding. Everyone agreed it was kind of a mess. What's going to happen to the kids there?

BURNETT: Well, that shelter out in Tornillo, Texas, has 2,800 kids. And as I reported, the operators are concerned they're going to run out of bed space any week now.

KING: Yeah.

BURNETT: A source familiar with the operation of the camp told me their contract runs out in two weeks. He said the nonprofit handles emergency response to hurricanes all over the Gulf South, but this deployment for these kids has exhausted the staff physically and emotionally. Most of these kids are teenage boys from Central America who crossed the southwest border without a parent. And it was meant just as an emergency shelter, not as a permanent children's residential center out in the desert. And they would like to shut it down as soon as possible.

KING: All right. So what happens - just quickly - in the immediate term?

BURNETT: Well, the relaxation of screening of the sponsors goes into effect right now. And the assistant secretary says she's hopeful that the population of kids, which has doubled since March, will now start to drop.

JOHNSON: I do hope this helps us reduce some of the numbers of children that are being kept in shelters who could be safely at home.

BURNETT: And so some of these migrant kids at least should be released to their family by Christmas.

KING: NPR's John Burnett. Thanks so much, John.

BURNETT: My pleasure. 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.