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Responding To Conditions At Migrant Detention Centers


For weeks, we've been hearing of crowded and run-down conditions at migrant detention centers along the southern border. Lawyers and lawmakers have toured some of those centers. Here's what Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro told NPR recently about what he saw.


JOAQUIN CASTRO: There was a group of women from Cuba, and some of them said they hadn't bathed or showered in about 15 days. One of them said that she had epilepsy and had not received her medications. Some of them said they'd been separated from their kids, and they didn't know where their kids were.

MARTIN: The Department of Homeland Security's own internal watchdog released a report this week calling the situation a, quote, "ticking time bomb." On this program yesterday Brandon Judd, the president of the National Border Patrol Council didn't deny the problem.


BRANDON JUDD: Our facilities, 100%, are absolutely overcrowded.

MARTIN: So the problem is clear. Why isn't the solution? Doris Meissner is the former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services, now known as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. She is now at the Migration Policy Institute. Thanks so much for being with us again.


MARTIN: So Democratic lawmakers and advocates for migrants and immigrants say that the situation, unequivocally, is horrific. The Border Patrol agrees. So what's the problem here? Where's the disconnect, and what's the way out?

MEISSNER: Well, there are a whole set of problems and disconnects. The primary - or the disconnect right at the moment is that these young people and also the families are to be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services. And the Department of Health and Human Services does not have enough facilities and isn't able to place people quickly enough.

But the problem also is that the administration has intended to keep people in custody who are adults, as a deterrent, and that clogs up the facilities. Basically, the larger problem, when you step back just slightly, is that Border Patrol facilities, which are the ones that are primarily the ones being reported on, were never set up for this kind of a population.

The whole experience at the Southwest border for Border Patrol enforcement has, for decades - more than 40 years - been one of Mexican - young, Mexican males coming to the country trying to avoid the Border Patrol in order to work in the United States. And that population, that flow, began to change more than five years ago to more and more Central Americans, more and more families, to the point that for the last several years, Central Americans have far outnumbered young Mexican males.

Those Central Americans are coming for protection. They're looking for asylum, and they want to be found by the Border Patrol so that they can file an application. When they are found, they're placed in Border Patrol facilities, which are just like police stations. They are set up for overnight turnaround of people that traditionally had been able to be returned to Mexico.

But under these circumstances, it's an entirely different process, an entirely different population, and the government agencies involved and responsible have not adjusted their procedures and, more importantly, in the case of these humanitarian conditions, their facilities to respond to the change in the population.

MARTIN: Well, let me ask you about that because we spoke with the head of the National Border Patrol Council president on this program yesterday, and he said it - basically, it's not their fault. The issue has been about funding. Let's listen.


JUDD: We only have a finite amount of money that Congress appropriates to us for these facilities. I mean, when you look at this issue, this falls directly on Congress's lap. Congress is the body that determines the facilities that we have.

MARTIN: I mean, do you agree?

MEISSNER: Well, certainly, Congress is the body that appropriates the money. But at the same time, the executive branch has the responsibility for making requests and outlining its issues to the Congress. But Congress has not always been responsive because there's been - in the case of these new flows, because there's been a real dispute between the administration and the Congress about asylum and asylum processing.

But at the same time, this is not just an issue that has appeared in the last two or three months. This is an issue that's been developing for years. Central Americans have outnumbered and been the largest population for at least three or four years. And the procedures at the border and the requests that are made for resources have not adjusted in response to that.

MARTIN: So President Trump did sign a $4.6 billion aid package this week that's supposed to go toward migrant care. But I want to get into that issue of asylum because this is really at the core of this debate.

President Trump and others have suggested that America can't be everyone's solution to every problem. I mean, in particular, when you're thinking about asylum or the issue of domestic violence, if a woman is abused in her home in El Salvador, should she and all those like her be granted asylum in the U.S.? What do you say to that?

MEISSNER: They would not all be granted asylum in the U.S., and it's absolutely true that asylum is not the answer for the pervasive problems that exist in Central American countries. At the same time, many people who are coming have connections in the United States, and they have a right to apply for asylum. And the asylum system is not, at the present, time set up to make decisions in a timely manner in order to respond to those requests. That needs to change.

MARTIN: Doris Meissner, former head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services, thanks for your time.

MEISSNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.