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News Brief: Government Shutdown, Migrant Children, Congo Elections


How do Congress and the president find their way out of a partial government shutdown?


If you're just catching up after a few days off, the news of the shutdown is the same as when you left. Today is a work day for many people but not for hundreds of thousands of federal employees. President Trump demanded funding for a border wall. He wants it attached to an otherwise routine spending bill.

In the last days of the fully Republican Congress, the House and Senate passed different measures. Now President Trump has been talking with some Republicans, but it's not clear what he's willing to offer Democrats who are about to take over the House.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley covers the White House and has been covering this story of course. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Anybody have any ideas how to get out of this?

HORSLEY: (Laughter) They're looking around. You know, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had lunch with the president yesterday and floated this idea of perhaps swapping the billions of dollars in wall funding that the president wants for a reprieve for the so-called DREAMers - that is, young people who were brought to the country as children and were living in the country illegally - and others who've been living here on a temporary status. Worth noting, though, you know, the president had a deal like that earlier in the year that would have included a lot more wall funding.


HORSLEY: And it was blown up by some of the hard-liners within the White House.

INSKEEP: And so it was the president who turned down that deal before and the president who would need to sign on this time. Is there any indication the Democrats would still take that deal, Scott?

HORSLEY: Democrats seem to be holding a firm line. They're saying, we're not interested in funding your wall. And of course their leverage will only increase later this week. Up until now, Democrats have really only had veto power to block legislation in the Senate. But come Thursday, they will control the House.

INSKEEP: Scott, I just want to make sure I understand the stakes here as hundreds of thousands of federal workers remain off the job and some agencies remain partially closed. The president originally demanded a wall across the entire border, has more recently said it's OK to have a wall across most of the border. And even more recently, he's changed his images of the wall to make it a fence. So he wants a fence over lots of the border. And there's already fence over lots of the border. Are we - is this debate actually getting smaller and smaller to the point where it's not really about very much?

HORSLEY: It's a very symbolic debate and really has been all along. But the president has kind of toggled between messages. On the one hand, he says we must have a wall to protect border security. In other settings, though, he'll say the wall is largely built. So he's been very inconsistent in his message. And he's been mocked by Democrats for that changing description of the wall. I think the House speaker in waiting, Nancy Pelosi, joked that before long he's going to have a beaded curtain.

INSKEEP: We're - (laughter) a beaded curtain.

HORSLEY: And, you know, you're right, Steve, about the impact of the shutdown. It has been somewhat muted up until now during the holidays except for those 800,000 federal workers who are either furloughed or working without pay. But over time, you know, the effects will begin to pile up. Later this week, we're going to see the Smithsonian museum shut down along with the National Zoo. The EPA halted operations over the weekend. So the effects will be mounting.

I talked to a fellow with a nonprofit group that works at Joshua Tree National Park out in California. You know, right now they have volunteers stocking the bathrooms with toilet paper. But over time, he said, the pit toilets are going to fill up; the dumpsters are going to fill up. And that's kind of a metaphor for what's happening throughout the government.

INSKEEP: Perfect ending - Scott, we'll just leave you right there.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That is NPR's Scott Horsley. Happy New Year to you.

HORSLEY: Happy New Year.


INSKEEP: The Department of Homeland Security wants more stringent medical screenings of minors detained at the border.

KING: Right, this is happening after two migrant children died while in U.S. custody. But more of these screenings mean more resources, and government agencies are already overwhelmed. The U.S. government reportedly released more than 1,600 migrants last week. These are people arrested at the border who can't be detained.

INSKEEP: Some of them end up in shelters. And Monica Ortiz Uribe spent time with a pediatrician who treats migrants at one shelter. She's on the line. Good morning.


INSKEEP: Just to understand who we're talking about here, these are people who were effectively arrested by Border Patrol or are taken into custody by ICE and then released by ICE. Is that right?

URIBE: Yeah, that's correct. So, you know, the policy - the so-called catch and release policy applies mostly to Central Americans who can't automatically be turned around and deported the way Mexican nationals can be. So when ICE apprehends a Central American migrant, they can either put them in a detention center or release them with a future date. And because the courts are so backlogged, the immigration courts, they - these migrants can often wait for months or years in the U.S. before their case is decided.

INSKEEP: Oh, which is the very thing that President Trump says he dislikes because he sees it as an incentive for people to cross the border illegally. They effectively get here even if they've got a court date looming over their heads. But...

URIBE: Correct.

INSKEEP: ...The administration is releasing people because they can't detain all of them. Are aid organizations in El Paso able to absorb all the families that are coming now?

URIBE: Well, that's the million-dollar question. So far they have been. Donations have kept up, and they've been able to find enough space so that migrants can spend one or two nights here in El Paso before continuing on to meet relatives in other parts of the U.S. But, yeah, the director of the local shelter network is named Ruben Garcia. And he says their goal is to find enough beds for 3,000 people per week in case the numbers increase.

RUBEN GARCIA: It's going to take activating more sites. It's going to mean finding more churches or organizations that are willing to receive refugees.

URIBE: So the key word here is willing. Annunciation House runs on the public's goodwill, and that's online financial donations and an army of volunteers. If the number of migrant families starts to exceed their capacity, Garcia says they may have to turn to the city of El Paso for help, asking it to open up more shelters and provide the staff to run them.

INSKEEP: Although we heard there the appeal not for governments to step up but for private citizens. Who is stepping forward?

URIBE: Yeah, the variety is extraordinary. These are low-income folks who rely on a food pantry for meals. They've volunteered to cook for the migrants. People have flown in from as far away as Maine to help out for a week or two. Then there's the college students who are on winter break. People go to Costco and fill up a cart with diapers and jackets to take to the shelters.

I'm also told that the wife of Stanford's head football coach in town for today's annual Sun Bowl game brought the migrant families Popeye's chicken for lunch yesterday. One volunteer told me it's like a big Mexican family. When more people show up for Christmas, you simply find the extra room.

INSKEEP: Oh, goodness, OK, so a kind of festive scene even though it's in some ways dark because people don't know what their future is going to be.

URIBE: Yeah, it's bringing a lot of people out to help, inspiring their, yeah, sense to help.

INSKEEP: Monica, Happy New Year.

URIBE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's reporter Monica Ortiz Uribe in El Paso, Texas.


INSKEEP: We go now to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a presidential election has been called into question.

KING: That's right. After more than two years of delays, Congolese went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president. Now the votes are being counted, and opposition candidates are alleging widespread irregularities. The outgoing president, Joseph Kabila, says the problems were minor, and he's praised the Congolese people for voting in peace and dignity.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in the capital, Kinshasa, covered the vote, is monitoring developments. Hey there, Ofeibea.


INSKEEP: What's happening?

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, my goodness, let me just remind you, Steve, why these elections are so important and so key and why the stakes are so high, because of course President Joseph Kabila, who has been in power for almost 18 years, says he's stepping down. And the election has been delayed for two years, since December 2016, prompting the opposition to charge that Kabila was trying to remain in power and stay past his mandate.

And, you know, Congo's presidential election should enable this vast country, which is rich but poor, to finally have a peaceful and democratic transfer of power since independence from Belgium in 1960. So that's why these elections are so important and why there's so much tension.

INSKEEP: Well, absolutely, because if you don't have a transfer of power, you by definition don't really have a - don't really have a democracy. You certainly don't have an open election system. So why is the opposition saying there was a problem with this election?

QUIST-ARCTON: They say right from the start - and one of them, Felix Tshisekedi, has deplored what he called disorder. Now, he says the Congolese government has deliberately manipulated election day chaos because it wants to trigger a court challenge to allow Joseph Kabila, who has effectively been this caretaker president for two years, to stay on. And analysts say they're only - you know, the only thing they can do then is go to court. But any sort of court challenge would be a dead end for the opposition.

You have Martin Fayulu, another opposition candidate, who read out a long list of supposed irregularities, he said, including jammed voting machines, late opening of polling stations, missing voters' registers. And he says, you know, opposition coalition observers who are meant to be in the polling stations were kicked out when it came to the time to count ballots, so there a stream of fury from the opposition about all that's going on.

INSKEEP: Were there independent monitors of this election, Ofeibea? And if so, what are they saying?

QUIST-ARCTON: Let me tell you not from The Carter Center in Atlanta and not from the European Union but, yes, lots and lots of local ones, 20,000. But even these election observers reported multiple difficulties in voting.

The influential Catholic Church, which has mediated in peace talks between the government and the opposition, voted at least 1,500 problems, a third of them with these controversial new voting machines which were apparently sourced in South Korea and being used for the first time. Technology flummoxed not only the machines, which jammed and didn't work, but also lots of voters who are used to manual ballots, so lots and lots of problems.

The question is, though, will the vote be credible? Will the results be credible? Will the Congolese who were determined to vote in their millions finally choose the president they feel should be the president and not who anyone else feels should be the president? That is the key...


QUIST-ARCTON: ...After election.

INSKEEP: And we will be listening for your reporting. Ofeibea, thanks so much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: And Happy New Year to you, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.