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Reporter Who Helped Expose Conditions At The Border Says Little Has Changed


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Although President Trump was forced by the courts a year ago to end his administration's policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, recent reports from the border have described hundreds of children, teens and toddlers being held in squalid conditions at a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas.

Our guest today is New York Times immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson, who's been reporting on the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions at these migrant detention facilities. Last year, Dickerson was among the first to reveal that the Trump administration had instituted a policy of separating families at the border. She recently reported for The New York Times TV show "The Weekly" on a 4-month-old boy who was taken from his father.

Caitlin Dickerson joined The New York Times in 2016. Before that, she was an investigative reporter for NPR, where her work was honored with a Peabody Award and an Edward R. Murrow Award. In today's Times, Dickerson reported that officials from ICE - Immigration and Customs Enforcement - told her they plan to begin deportation raids this Sunday, targeting first at least 2,000 migrants who recently entered the country but didn't show up for court hearings.

Well, Caitlin Dickerson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the conditions in the border station at Clint, Texas. How do we know what conditions were like there?

CAITLIN DICKERSON: So we originally learned about the conditions in the Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, from a group of lawyers who were given access to the facility not to do an inspection, but to meet with children who were being housed there. They got access under an ongoing federal lawsuit that sets the standards for how children can be held in immigration detention.

They interviewed about 60 kids, and this - kids described a lot of substandard conditions, beginning with the fact that they said they were malnourished. Every child that the lawyers interviewed said that they had gone hungry at at least some point during their stay there. They were basically given three small meals a day, regardless of their age. The youngest child the lawyer saw was 5 months old. The oldest was 17.

And then the children also said that the sanitation was very bad, that many of them hadn't showered at all since they crossed the border weeks earlier. They were wearing the same clothing. They weren't allowed to brush their teeth. And not only that, but there were infants who were being cared for by other children. So the infants in the facility had either been separated from family members they crossed the border with, or they were there with their teenage mothers. And the separated infants had to be taken care of by somebody, so they were being taken care of by other children.

So we originally learned about the conditions from these lawyers. We reported those stories. But then short after, inspector general reports from the Department of Homeland Security that had been prepared even prior to the lawyers' visit to Clint started to come out, and they documented the exact same thing. So at that point, we had the inspector general reports to corroborate the conditions.

And then finally, just last week, the Times embarked on a big investigative reporting effort where we talked to Border Patrol agents who worked at Clint. And they, too, described these conditions for us.

DAVIES: Right. Now, this ended up in court. And there's a famous bit of tape at a - this is a U.S. appeals court. You want to just describe what was happening here, how this got there?

DICKERSON: Sure. So the now-famous exchange in court had to do with something called the Flores settlement. That's the federal lawsuit I described that sets the standard for immigration detention of children. It's a lawsuit that was filed in the late 1980s and settled in the '90s, but has been litigated in an ongoing way ever since because the judge determined in that case that the Department of Homeland Security and the Health and Human Services Department had to maintain a certain set of standards in taking care of children. And the judge also gave the lawyers in the case - the plaintiff's lawyers - the ability to basically check in on the government and make sure that they were holding up their end of the deal.

And so periodically, all these lawyers end up back in court because the plaintiffs will say that the federal government hasn't been maintaining the standards that the judge required. And so in one of those hearings that took place in June, you heard federal government lawyers arguing that the government should not have to provide things like soap or toothbrushes in the temporary holding facilities like the Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas.

The government lawyers' justification was that these are temporary facilities. Kids are only going to be there for a few days. And so therefore, it's not necessarily required in order to maintain, you know, what the judge asked for, which was safe and sanitary conditions, that the government give soap or toothbrushes in those temporary places, as opposed to longer-term facilities. Those weren't in dispute.

The three-judge panel who was listening to the arguments very openly balked at the lawyer's argument and really seemed to openly struggle to wrap their minds around how the government lawyer could possibly think that something like soap or toothbrushes wouldn't be required in order to keep these facilities safe and sanitary. And this sort of back and forth between the lawyers and the judges went viral.

DAVIES: So let's listen to a bit of this sound. This is from a hearing at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The judge we'll hear from speaking is A. Wallace Tashima. And it's interesting that he is addressing this issue because he himself was interred in a Japanese internment camp in World War II. Let's listen.


A WALLACE TASHIMA: It's within everybody's common understanding that, you know, if you don't have a toothbrush, if you don't have soap, if you don't have a blanket, it's not safe and - wouldn't everybody agree to that? Do you agree to that?

SARAH FABIAN: Well, I think it's - I think those are - there's fair reason to find that those things may be part of safe and sanitary.

TASHIMA: Not may be - are a part. Why do you say may be? You mean there are circumstances when a person doesn't need to have a toothbrush, toothpaste and soap for days?

FABIAN: Well, I think in CBP custody, there's - it's frequently intended to be much shorter-term. So it may be that for a shorter-term stay in CBP custody that some of those things may not be required.

WILLIAM FLETCHER: Yeah, but I don't think that was the situation that the court was confronting. I mean, it wasn't as though those people were there for 12 hours and they moved on to the Hilton Hotel. No, they were there for a very - fairly sustained period. And, at least according to the evidence that the judge believed, they weren't getting these things for a fairly sustained period.

DAVIES: So Caitlin Dickerson, has this resulted in judicial orders, or is there ongoing litigation around the conditions in Clint?

DICKERSON: There is ongoing litigation. So we're still waiting for an order over the exchange that we just heard around, specifically, toothbrushes and soap in these Border Patrol stations that act as temporary detention facilities. But it was pretty clear - it seems based on the reaction of the three judges in court that they will, in fact, decide those are items that the government needs to provide.

With regard to Clint, when the lawyers who were involved in this Flores lawsuit left Clint, they went back to their home states. And they started working up a new motion, which they filed. It was a temporary restraining order that they requested, hoping to get access to all the facilities where Customs and Border Protection - the federal agency at issue here - houses children and to make sure that all of those facilities are maintaining Flores standards, and if they're not, to immediately bring them up to standards. That temporary restraining order was granted. And a judge ordered that a mediator go in, inspect all of the facilities and make sure that they are indeed maintaining safe and sanitary conditions.

And so that process is underway right now. I think it's quite possible that in the next few weeks, we may see even more litigation because there's so much attention right now being focused on the facilities that Customs and Border Protection runs, especially those that house children.

And the inspector general reports that I mentioned earlier suggest that the conditions in Clint were not unique, that a lot of the same issues are popping up in Border Patrol stations across the southwest border. And so I think it's likely that you'll see the Flores lawyers continue to fight those conditions in court and try to get them addressed.

DAVIES: Right. I mean, the government responded by moving a lot of the kids out of Clint. And is it - do we even know where they went?

DICKERSON: So yes. So at the time, there were about 300 kids in Clint when the lawyers went to visit. Within a few days, the government had transferred about 250 of them into the care of the Health and Human Services Department. That's the federal agency that's responsible for housing children long-term and is, in general, more equipped to do so.

Some of the kids who were in Clint - we don't know the exact number, but it's a handful - were sent to a different Border Patrol station. It's a newer one. It's called El Paso Station 1 - or rather, it's newly expanded and has newer facilities that are designed to house children and families. And so the thinking was that conditions there would be better. But it's worth noting that El Paso Station 1 came up in those inspector general reports. And again, you know, issues with health and safety, issues with basic sanitation were prominent.

And the other important thing is that though the majority of kids were moved out of Clint in the aftermath of this sort of backlash against the conditions there, the government almost immediately started moving other children into Clint. They emptied the facility and then started filling it back up very quickly after.

And again, you know, it's very difficult for us to get access to the facility and to understand how much it's improved. We think that the population count is lower, that it may not be as far above capacity as it once was. But beyond that, we're left to request information from the government and hope they give it to us.

DAVIES: Right. And it's probably worth going back to what this facility was built for in the first place. It was never intended for keeping families long-term, right?

DICKERSON: No, this is a Border Patrol station that was intended to house, at maximum, 100 adults. And the population that the government had in mind when they built this station was adult men. This is a population of border crossers of yore, if you will. I mean, four decades, historically, the vast majority of people who crossed the border were adult men on their own who were looking for work and who were trying to cross the border illegally. So their best hope was to sneak past Border Patrol agents, get into the country, get a job and start sending money very often back home to family either in Mexico or in Central America.

Now we have a completely different population of border crossers. The majority are now children or families who are crossing the border. And rather than trying to sneak past immigration officers, they're walking right up to them, and they're requesting asylum status. And as a result, they're entitled to have their cases heard in immigration court, and that means being held in federal detention for longer periods of time.

So now you have children and families being housed in these cells that were intended for adult men who would usually, once they were caught, be returned home within a couple of hours. And now you have children who are staying in there for weeks.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with New York Times national immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson. She's written a lot about changes in immigration and detention policy and the effects on the lives of immigrants. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with The New York Times national immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson, a former investigative reporter for NPR, by the way. She's recently written about changes in immigration and detention policy and their effect on the lives of immigrants.

A team from The New York Times and the El Paso Times spent a lot of time looking into Clint, including talking to staff there. What did they say about the conditions and the impact on their own lives and emotions?

DICKERSON: The staff members that we talked to were extremely distressed about what they'd seen in Clint. These are Border Patrol agents, many of them who've been working along the border for a long time and said they had never seen anything like it, that they weren't trained to care for or house children and they didn't have the resources to do it.

They said that they had been raising the alarm with leadership within the agency for months, saying if something doesn't change, this is going to get really bad. And they say that their requests for help were ignored. And you know, they were struggling emotionally to see the circumstances that children were living in and feeling pretty powerless, feeling like there was nothing they could do about it.

DAVIES: You know, there have been stories about a Facebook group involving a lot of Border Patrol agents, which, you know, had some disturbing content. You want to give us a sense of what kinds of stuff there was there and whether the agents that your reporter spoke to - how they reacted to that or how they differed from the messages there?

DICKERSON: Sure. So the Facebook group was a private group that had thousands of members who were current and former members of the Border Patrol. And it included, really, as you said, disturbing language and images that were sexist, that were racist and that were otherwise dehumanizing that depicted Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in very sexist and compromising positions. People joked about throwing burritos at her - really disturbing stuff and, you know, quite frankly, as someone who's covered immigration for a while, not new things. These are concepts that I've seen and that have even reported on being sort of pervasive among the Border Patrol before.

And so there are a lot of cultural issues there that need to be addressed. You know, we're talking about the largest law enforcement agency in the country, with about 20,000 active members. And so, of course, within their ranks, you see a wide variety of opinions and many people who are sympathetic to the populations of people who are coming across the border. But I think what that Facebook post makes clear is that there are systemic and cultural issues that need to be addressed really from the top down.

DAVIES: You were one of the first to report on the separation of kids from their parents last year. And a really compelling look at that process came from a story you did involving a woman named Alma Acevedo, who was a case worker in Michigan who deals with migrant children. Describe who she worked for and what her job was.

DICKERSON: Sure. So Alma Acevedo was a 23-year-old recent college graduate in Kalamazoo, Mich., when she got a job with Bethany Christian Services. So this is one of the organizations, a nonprofit, that has a contract with the federal government to house immigrant children long-term. Some of those organizations house children in large-scale shelters. But for the most part, Bethany takes on the younger and more vulnerable population of immigrant children who are in custody and places them in foster homes, which they believe are much more ideal settings for children to be housed in.

So Alma signed up for her job thinking that she was going to help immigrant children. It's a cause that appealed to her because she also came to the United States as an immigrant child, as a 2-year-old, from Mexico. And she was a caseworker working with unaccompanied children, mostly teenagers who were crossing the border on their own.

DAVIES: So what was the change she saw in 2017?

DICKERSON: So that summer, Alma started to receive on her caseload at Bethany Christian Services a different population of children, children who were much younger and who were much more traumatized than she'd ever seen before. Some were too young to talk, but those who were old enough would tell her that they had been separated from their parents when they crossed the border.

And remember; this is a year before the Trump administration acknowledges that it's conducting family separations across the border. We now know that they launched a pilot program in 2017 in El Paso, where many separations took place. But in fact, separations were taking place across the border, and they have been documented since. And we still have very little information about why or how many such separations took place.

But nevertheless, it left people like Alma really in the dark about how to care for these children. Historically, their jobs had been to place children in their care in sponsors' homes. So to look for long-term housing for the children. They were only supposed to be in Bethany's care temporarily until the children could be placed with family members or family friends who would agree to take care of them long term. In Alma's case, and historically, too, the children Alma cared for came to the United States with a plan. If their parents weren't already here, their parents had made arrangements with extended family members or with family friends who the children were meant to be released to ultimately. But of course, children who came here with their parents and were separated had no plan. Maybe they had no family in the United States. If they did, they probably had no way to figure out how to reach them.

And so Alma started, as a result, having to take care of kids for much longer periods of time. And it was a really disturbing experience for her because, you know, these children were traumatized to a degree that she said they basically couldn't get any work done, that the kids would come to Bethany every day for schooling, and she said it was just classrooms full of crying kids - so bad that the workers actually couldn't do anything because they were just constantly going from one child to the next to try to console it.

And she said that, you know, basically, each time a new separated child would arrive, it would trigger all the rest of the children and their emotions would become that much more intense.

DAVIES: And how did she talk to kids about what had happened to them and their parents?

DICKERSON: So it was delicate. And Alma described to me a real process in trying to figure out how to explain what was going on to children. Again, a process for which they had no guidance from the federal government because at the time the government was denying that family separations were taking place.

As we know now, parents of lots of these children ended up being deported without them, and that was one of the most difficult things for caseworkers like Alma to communicate to kids. She described to me meetings that would go on for hours between she and her colleagues to try to determine how to explain to a child that their parent had been sent back to Honduras or to Guatemala. And typically, it was the person on staff who had the best relationship with the child, who would explain to them what had happened. They would use things like pictures or puppets to illustrate the distance between the United States and the country where the parent was.

And they also learned that they had to be really vague, which was difficult but which, ultimately, felt more caring to them. Because if they gave a child any kind of concrete expectation about when they might see their parent again, a child, even a child who was barely old enough to speak, would latch on to that, she said, really aggressively, and they would check in with her constantly. If she told a child, you may see your parent again in two weeks, you know, every three hours, the child would come to her and say, has it been two weeks yet, has it been two weeks yet?

So Alma and her colleagues learned to be vague and to use language like, in many, many days, you will see your parents again, so that the child wouldn't have anything to latch on to and, you know, to keep them up at night counting down the days.

DAVIES: Caitlin Dickerson is a national immigration reporter for The New York Times. After a break, she'll talk about whether conditions are improving for migrants along the border and about new restrictions the Trump administration has placed on those seeking asylum. Also, Justin Chang reviews the new film "The Farewell" from writer-director Lulu Wang. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with New York Times national immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson about the Trump administration's immigration policies and conditions for migrants along the southern border.

When we left off, she was talking about a social worker in Michigan who worked for an agency that housed migrant children. In 2017, she began seeing younger children who said they'd been separated from their parents at the border. This was long before the Trump administration admitted publicly there was a policy of family separations.

So for months and months, I mean, these kids were being sent to places - to private agencies like hers. And I'm sure the people who run her agency must have had some communication with others in the immigration system, saying, what on earth is going on? Were they getting any explanations?

DICKERSON: As far as we know, and for the most part, they weren't. You know, this area is still largely a black box for us. You know, the question of who knew what when is still, to this day, difficult to answer. We know that the Health and Human Services Agency and, of course, the Department of Homeland Security are headed by Trump administration political appointees. And these are the two agencies that were involved with the family separations, both conducting them and then caring for the children in the aftermath.

We've heard from very high-level career officials - so people who weren't appointed by the Trump administration. Jonathan White, commander within Health and Human Services, is probably one of the most prominent voices who was required to testify before Congress but who said that, you know, he knew that family separation was an idea that had been floated, that he advised the administration not to move forward with it and that he did not know when family separations began. He was not given an explanation. He didn't learn until they were already very well underway.

So who ordered what when, and who was privy? These are still questions that journalists like me desperately want to answer. But when it comes to lower-level and, again, even high-level career officials - when somebody at Bethany would reach out to them and ask what was going on, that person would say they didn't know because they didn't know.

So it wasn't until, basically, the Health and Human Services Department reached out to the Department of Homeland Security and said, look; we have a ton of kids in our custody whose parents we can't find. They say they were separated. We don't know what to do with them. Can you help us? - that Department of Homeland Security agreed to do it. They said, OK, put together a list of kids, and we can help you try to find their parents.

That list is the document that I got access to, which showed that, by April of 2018, that hundreds of kids had been separated. When we reported it, that was what forced the federal government to acknowledge that, yes, they were conducting family separations. But until that point, when a place like Bethany would reach out to the federal government for help, they were being told family separations, by and large, are not being conducted. They're only being done in extreme and rare circumstances when it's absolutely necessary for the safety of the child.

DAVIES: The president formally ended the family separation policy in June of last year, right?


DAVIES: But we're - now we're seeing large numbers of kids in detention on the border again. Why?


DAVIES: Do we understand why?

DICKERSON: We do. So there are two reasons. One is that family separations continue. And it's important to point out that here - you know, why they continue.

So historically, predating the Trump administration - during the Obama administration, the Bush administration - policy along the border was, you evaluate a family when they arrive at the border. You make sure that they are legitimate family members, that you're not actually dealing with a human trafficker. And you check the criminal record of the adult claiming to be a parent to make sure that they don't have anything on their record that would prevent them from providing a safe and healthy home for the child - things like child abuse, things like violence. And in the rare cases where you do find such a criminal record or where you do find that you're actually dealing with a human trafficker and a child, not a parent and a child, you separate them.

After the Trump administration ended its family separation practice - which was done on a much broader scale, without regard for who the parent was, but to achieve deterrence, to discourage people from coming to the United States - they told us that they went back to this prior policy, that it had existed under Presidents Obama and Bush. But what we're seeing and what we've reported is that separation still continued to happen on a much larger scale than they did previously, even one that, when you sort of adjust for the increasing number of families crossing the border, still seems higher as a percentage than it was before.

And so we've reported individual cases where children have been separated from parents who had low-level criminal offenses or very old criminal offenses - issues that, when we bring them to child welfare experts, they say, you know, this is not the kind of crime - something like a trespassing conviction or a decade-old DUI - not the kind of crime that would prevent someone from taking care of their child - certainly not the kind of crime that would justify taking a child away from a parent.

And we also are seeing separations happen on a much grander scale between children and adult relatives they cross the border with who aren't their biological parents. Historically, a child who came with a grandparent or an aunt or uncle would likely be allowed into the country with that person. But now, almost all of those extended connections are being separated.

DAVIES: Now, President Trump has also imposed some new restrictions, right? What are they?

DICKERSON: That's right. So at the same time that family separations have continued, the Trump administration introduced rules that make it more difficult for kids to be released from federal custody. These are additional vetting requirements that are applied even to parents who are applying to sponsor their own children - things like DNA tests, in some cases, like fingerprinting. And of course, a lot of the parents or family members who apply to sponsor kids are undocumented themselves. If not, people who live with them are undocumented themselves.

And the requirements - the new requirements also apply to others living in the household with potential sponsors. That had a real chilling effect that discouraged people from coming forward to sponsor kids because they knew it would mean that they would ultimately just be arrested. And so you saw backups at the front end with more kids being separated, more kids crossing the border. And then you see backups at the back end, with fewer kids being released.

DAVIES: Has that changed at all?

DICKERSON: Those requirements have been scaled back recently, I think largely because the numbers in custody of children just became untenable. So now the extended - the - now people who are living in the households with children but who are not applying for sponsors are no longer subject to fingerprinting requirements. And it's also true that direct family members are no longer subject to fingerprinting requirements. And that's because those policies basically backfired and created a situation that federal officials were not prepared to handle where there were way too many kids in custody.

DAVIES: There have also been some changes on the procedures for seeking asylum, too - haven't they? - which have affected things. What's going on there?

DICKERSON: There have been many changes. It's sort of hard to know where to begin. So we can start with metering. That's a process that limits the number of people who can apply legally for asylum at a port of entry every day. Certain ports of entry decided that they were only going to take 10 cases a day or 50 cases a day or a hundred cases a day, leaving a lot of other people having to wait, you know, sometimes days or weeks.

As a result of that, you started seeing more people cross the border between ports of entry and seek out Border Patrol agents to try to request asylum that way. But there, they're running into another additional requirement that's been added, a program called MPP - the Migrant Protection Protocol, as the administration calls it - which has started to require certain asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for the months during which their immigration cases are heard. That's also slowed down the process.

We've seen new guidance come down to asylum officers to be more strict, more scrutinizing and, ultimately, to deny more people of their ability to seek asylum because these new rules have raised the bar for what's called credible fear, which is the first hurdle someone has to cross in order to proceed through the asylum system. And then, you know, we've seen rules that require more asylum seekers to be held in detention rather than being released. It's a real shift and a real sort of rewriting through - not law, but through policy of asylum as we knew it.

DAVIES: Right. So these many, many thousands of people who come seeking asylum are finding they can't simply apply on any given day, that there are restrictions to how many people can apply. Many have to wait in Mexico once they make an application. And then, of course, there are rules involving kids. Are there legal challenges to these practices underway?

DICKERSON: Yes, almost every new policy that the administration has introduced has been challenged in court. Many of those challenges have successfully blocked the policies, but then the policies have been retooled in a way that allows them to be put into place anyway.

So the Migrant Protection Protocol, for example, was challenged. It was retooled, and now that remains in place and is expanding across the border. We recently saw...

DAVIES: That's the policy that requires people to stay in Mexico until their case is heard.


DAVIES: Right.

DICKERSON: And we also recently saw a challenge to a policy that would require many asylum seekers to stay in custody throughout their duration of their cases. It would - it took away their ability to request bond hearings. That challenge was recently successful, but it's likely that the administration will come back with another version that they hope will make its way through the courts without being blocked again.

DAVIES: Caitlin Dickerson is a national immigration reporter for The New York Times. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with New York Times national immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson. She's written about changes in immigration and detention policy and their effect on the lives of immigrants.

You know, the president has recently tweeted that there may be raids and mass deportation of immigrants in the United States. And I'm wondering whether ICE officials knew of this and were making plans for it, or was this coming just from the president?

DICKERSON: So the millions number that the president tweeted was, of course, an exaggeration. We don't have the ability or the resources to deport millions of people at once, nor would it be legal, given the protections that people - even those without legal status - have to argue in court to be able to stay in the United States.

But there was a plan to conduct raids against migrant families - those who'd recently crossed the border and been ordered deported in absentia, which means they didn't show up for their first immigration court hearing. Those raids were planned. Then the president decided to delay them for a couple of weeks, he said, in order to pressure Democrats to agree to rewrite the immigration laws in a way that he found to be better. And it's our understanding that the planning for those raids is still underway.

And it's quite rare to see raids of the homes of migrant families because, you know, there are millions of undocumented people in the United States. And Immigration and Customs Enforcement - that agency can only go after a small number of people. They usually avoid going after families. They usually go after individual adults, and in particular, those who have criminal records.

DAVIES: And would the arrest of all of these families recreate the problem of taxing the resources for detention, or would they be immediately deported - or do we know?

DICKERSON: Well, they can't be immediately deported. And we know from our sources in the federal government that that was part of the reason why the administration delayed the raids and why many people objected to them - because legally, families who are arrested will have a right to file a motion to reopen their immigration cases. And even if most people aren't familiar with the laws, it's likely that as soon as those raids began, the sort of network of immigration advocates and lawyers across the country would step up and try to represent those families right away.

So the administration knows that it's quite possible they won't be able to deport the vast majority of families that are arrested if it does proceed with family raids. But we've seen before and we've heard before from our sources that in some cases, that doesn't matter, that this sort of show of political strength for the president is very important in terms of rallying his base.

And that's led the administration to sometimes proceed in introducing policies that it knows will be blocked in court or that it won't - or that, for other reasons, won't be successful because politically and domestically, it is a very successful move for the president to introduce harsh policies on immigration.

DAVIES: You know, in the stories about the treatment of kids in border facilities, there have been statements by immigration officials that - you know, that are going to be expanding resources for, you know, living space and medical treatment, et cetera. And now there is this $4.6 billion bill from Congress. Has that - have things begun to change? Is there a prospect that conditions will change?

DICKERSON: They haven't begun to change yet. And we'll have to wait and see because Democrats in that negotiation had hoped to put a lot of provisions on the money that was going to be provided to make sure that it would go toward the welfare of children. As they put it, Republicans instead were asking for a blank check.

And Republicans were pretty successful in the negotiations at blocking a lot of the provisions Democrats had hoped for because there was such urgency, you know, especially right after the stories about Clint published, to fix things that the Republicans were able to say, you know, to Democrats, do you want to be the person who's responsible from preventing these kids for getting the diapers and the formula that they need?

And so as a result, the agencies involved now have a lot of discretion for how to use that money. And I know I've had border officials say to me that, you know, we don't want to build larger or more comfortable facilities because that will be seen as - they'll be seen as welcome centers. It will result as becoming an incentive for more people to come here. And so it's a real open question how much things are going to get better or how much the agency will choose to leave them as they are now.

DAVIES: Many people have been deeply disturbed by the stories and images that we've seen about conditions at border stations like Clint and elsewhere. There's been a lot of outrage. Can you tell if things have really changed there and up and down the border?

DICKERSON: I don't think that things have substantively changed within the facilities along the border. We know that overcrowding has improved, and that's largely because in the last month, fewer people have crossed the border than in months past as a result of entirely separate policies. But within them, the conditions largely remain because a lot of them were sort of status quo under the policies that existed and have existed for years - things like keeping temperatures very low so that kids report that they're freezing, things like having kids sleep on concrete floors or leaving lights on 24/7. These are status quo conditions that existed and that even predate the Trump administration.

I think that in small ways, you've seen changes. Like, it's unlikely that there are currently many Border Patrol stations that don't have diapers or that don't have snacks to be provided during the day because these are some of the sort of most outrageous problems that people reacted to most strongly and, quite frankly, the most fixable issues.

So perhaps in a marginal way, you've seen things improve, but at the end of the day, you still have many children who are being housed in facilities that were built for adult men to be housed for a couple of hours where children are only supposed to be for 72 hours maximum. But instead, they're spending weeks there. And so there's only so much that you can do when those are the basic set of facts.

DAVIES: Is it a policy to keep temperatures very low - cold?

DICKERSON: The temperatures are a matter of policy, and it's something that I've asked about so many times. I can't tell you over the course of my career - where I just say, you know, hey. Why don't you just turn the temperature up a couple degrees? We've had people calling the detention facilities heladas for years. They say they're freezing cold. Why not just turn it up? And the answer that I get is sort of, oh, Caitlin, how silly that you think changing the temperature would be that simple. Do you have any idea how much it would cost to turn the temperature up and how difficult that would be for our budget across the entire system?

They say that they've had officials come in and evaluate facilities and determine what the appropriate temperature is for health and safety and that that's the temperature that Border Patrol uses. And so the temperature that they use, they say, is one that's vetted and that's proven to be correct. And it kind of leaves me as a loss because as I said, you know, I've been hearing people complain about this for years. And it feels like turning it up one or two degrees really might do something to address it.

I know that one other factor the agents consider is the smell. These facilities tend to smell really, really bad, and they smell even worse when the temperatures are higher because people aren't showering. And so their body odor gets worse, and I think that's a factor as well. And we're not talking about your standard-issue body odor. I mean, again, it's emanating from people who haven't been allowed to shower for weeks, and so agents describe the smell actually seeping into their clothes so that when they go home or they go out into the community, people don't want to stand near them because that's how powerful it is.

DAVIES: Well, Caitlin Dickerson, thanks so much for your reporting. And thanks for speaking with us.

DICKERSON: Thank you.

DAVIES: Caitlin Dickerson is a national immigration reporter for The New York Times. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "The Farewell," starring actress Awkwafina. This is FRESH AIR.


Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.