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Trump Alters Policy: Families Crossing Border Illegally Won't Be Separated

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're signing an executive order. I consider it to be a very important executive order. It's about keeping families together.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

With that, President Trump altered his policy that separated families crossing the border illegally. By doing so, the president admitted it was a policy, which he could change without Congress, largely the opposite of what his administration had said before. So it is clear. The administration says it will not separate children from parents. What is still unclear is what the administration will do instead.

Representative Bill Huizenga is on the line to talk about that. He's a Republican who represents Michigan's 2nd District in Congress. Welcome to the program.

BILL HUIZENGA: Hey. Thanks, Steve. Glad to be here.

INSKEEP: I want to note that there are children who've been taken to a center in Michigan after being separated from their parents. How, if at all, do you think they will be reunited?

HUIZENGA: Well, that's one of the questions that we have is what that reunification process looks like. And, in fact, I believe the organization that you're talking about is Bethany Christian Services, which is located in my district and just on the outskirts of Grand Rapids. And they are one of the largest fostering services that the federal government uses. And there are families in West Michigan and around Michigan that have been asked to do temporary fostering of these kids.

So that's one of the main questions that I have as well, not just about stopping the practice - the current practice right now, but how are we going to take that next step and make sure that we are reuniting those families?

INSKEEP: Well, let's raise another question here. The administration previously insisted their only choice here was either abandon the law, or else separate families because they weren't allowed to detain kids for very long. That was a false choice, they now admit. But the administration says it's going to try another thing - try to detain families together. Is that a good choice, Congressman?

HUIZENGA: Well, it's a better choice than, certainly, what is happening right now. And in the president's executive order, he specifically says it's unfortunate that Congress' failure to act and court orders have put the administration in the position of this. And I agree, on one hand, that it is unfortunate that Congress has not acted. I've been here. I'm in my fourth term. This has been an issue since the day I got here. It's been an issue prior to that. And we need to - we need to wrestle with this.

And what is really kind of unclear, I think, is the past administrations - the Obama administration - clearly had changed their interpretation of what the law was. That became the, quote, unquote, so-called, "catch and release." And we have seen a massive increase in the number of people. And you remember a few years ago, we had the unaccompanied minors situation that were coming across requesting asylum. Now you've got the families coming across requesting asylum. I believe the number is somewhere around 300,000 backlogged cases to review on asylum claims, which is over two years.

INSKEEP: That's a lot, yeah.

HUIZENGA: It's massive. That was kind of unprecedented.

INSKEEP: But I want to just ask, do you believe it is necessary to attempt, even if the law forbids it, attempt to detain families for a long period of time - more than 20 days, which is what a court ruling has said the limit should be for children?

HUIZENGA: Well, yeah. And you're talking about the Flores case that said it should be the 20 days. What we need to do, and this is also outlined partially, as I'm reading the executive order, is to make sure that the appropriations are there to increase the resources at the border to make sure that these reviews are happening quicker. My understanding is last night, DOD authorized some of their JAG Corps to go down to the border as well. I don't...

INSKEEP: Which will be looking into some of these cases. I'd like to ask if there's another alternative other than some kind of legal crisis about detaining people. There are alternatives to detention, as they're called - ankle monitors, telephone check-ins, smartphone monitoring to make sure that people show up for their court dates. Our reporter John Burnett has a stat he got from ICE, the immigration folks, that 99.8 percent of people in alternatives to detention successfully make it to immigration court. Do we really have to have a discussion about detaining families at all?

HUIZENGA: Well, that's a new statistic that I have not heard that high. I've heard the opposite - that when citations were issued, the - most of those folks didn't return for those court dates. So that's something that we're trying to unpack.

And as you and I were talking about a little bit before going on air, this is a multilayered, very complicated system. And we've got to - we've got to be diligent about going at this. I know people are trying to ignore the policy and just do politics over this, but that does nobody any good, especially those of us that are trying to make policy decisions with clear-eyed and clear-minded sense of the situation. So we're going to be keeping working on this.

INSKEEP: OK. And we will note there are many different statistics showing how many people show up for court dates, but that figure for alternatives to detention specifically is from ICE itself. Congressman, thanks very much, really appreciate it.

HUIZENGA: Hey, thanks, Steve. Appreciate it.

INSKEEP: Bill Huizenga is a Republican representing Michigan's 2nd District. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.