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Migrant children waiting at the southern border must be sheltered, judge rules

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A federal court in Los Angeles ruled that border officials are responsible for the welfare of children in makeshift encampments on the California side of the U.S.-Mexico border.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Migrants have been congregating in these camps while they wait to ask the Border Patrol for protection. Now a judge is ordering immigration cases with children to be expedited.

FADEL: Joining us from member station KQED in San Francisco to talk about what that means is senior immigration editor Tyche Hendricks. Hi, Tyche.

TYCHE HENDRICKS, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So tell us what this ruling means.

HENDRICKS: Sure. Well, this U.S. district judge in Los Angeles, Dolly Gee, ruled that even though the Border Patrol didn't create these camps, the fact is agents are monitoring people and telling them where to go. We're talking about families and unaccompanied minors, as well as adults. So she ruled that they are effectively in Border Patrol custody. And the reason that's important is that when children are in immigration custody, there are legal protections that kick in.

FADEL: And what are those legal protections?

HENDRICKS: Yeah, there's a legal settlement that dates back to the '90s called the Flores agreement that says when children are in immigration custody, the government has to provide safe and sanitary conditions. But the conditions in these open-air sites are not safe or sanitary by anybody's estimation. There's no food or medical care except what volunteers are offering. And advocates say kids are sheltering from the wind and the rain in port-a-potties.

FADEL: Who created these encampments?

HENDRICKS: Yeah, well, there are people coming from many countries. They're seeking safety or opportunity in the U.S. They've crossed the border illegally, and now they're in California. But, you know, they're not trying to run away from the Border Patrol. They're mostly waiting to ask for asylum. And so they've kind of congregated spontaneously. But agents say they don't have the capacity to process everyone immediately, and so migrants end up waiting in these open-air locations for hours, sometimes even days.

FADEL: So these encampments that are created spontaneously - what did the judge tell the government to do?

HENDRICKS: Yeah. Judge Gee says the Border Patrol needs to stop sending kids to these open-air sites, and they need to transport them, quote, "expeditiously" to more suitable facilities. She said the total time that kids can spend in the open-air sites, as well as in Border Patrol stations, combined - that can't be longer than 72 hours.

FADEL: And has the government responded?

HENDRICKS: Yeah. U.S. Customs and Border Protection told me they're reviewing the court's order. And they say they will continue to transport children to Border Patrol facilities as quickly as possible. Now, Leila, as you know, what happens at the border is often seen through the lens of politics. But I talked to Leecia Welch with Children's Rights. She's one of the lawyers who asked the judge to weigh in. And she says we should really think of this as a matter of humanity.

LEECIA WELCH: When children show up in your backyard, whether you're a Democrat or Republican or what your politics are, most people's first inclination is to want to make sure they're cared for. So for me, this isn't really about politics. This is about how we as a country want to take care of children.

HENDRICKS: But it's clear the government is going to have to find more resources to process kids faster. And the judge says she wants a report by May 10.

FADEL: KQED's senior immigration editor Tyche Hendricks. Thanks, Tyche.

HENDRICKS: My pleasure, Leila. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Tyche Hendricks