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Migrant Children Could Be Detained Indefinitely Under A New Trump Administration Rule

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Migrant children could be detained indefinitely under new regulations from the Trump administration. The new rules would replace what's known as the Flores agreement. That's a 1997 court settlement that set standards for the treatment of migrant children in government custody. Now, to explain what the administration has in mind, we've called Adam Kennedy. He's White House deputy director of communications. Welcome back to the program.

ADAM KENNEDY: Thank you so much for having me back.

CORNISH: Let's address the first concern people have, that this would allow the government to detain children indefinitely, if not 20 days, which was the rule under the Flores agreement. How long do you expect to hold children?

KENNEDY: Though, to be clear, this is about keeping family units together while enforcing immigration laws. What it allows us...

CORNISH: For how long?

KENNEDY: ...To do is to keep family units together while they go through court proceedings so that they can have their cases adjudicated. That's the responsible thing to do. Everybody agrees that we don't want to separate families. But we do need to enforce the laws passed by Congress. How long that will be was determined by how long the adjudications taken.

CORNISH: And you know right now those cases can take years. Is that your plan, to hold families for that length of time?

KENNEDY: Absolutely. The president's - absolutely not. The president's been asking repeatedly for more resources to speed up the process. And, again, we want to make sure that we're keeping families together while still enforcing the laws passed by Congress.

CORNISH: So you said absolutely not. But do you have your own limit?

KENNEDY: The limit is how long the adjudication case take. How long we can keep them is all about keeping the welfare of the child, keeping the welfare of the family certain while also making sure they go through the same process that anybody else would go through.

CORNISH: The Trump administration recently argued in court just this past June that providing toothbrushes and soap to minors was not required by the Flores agreement. Why should the public trust you will do better without the limits of Flores?

KENNEDY: So we are making sure that we have standards that we can implement for the housing and the welfare of children and for families together. Again, this is a situation where we are trying to make sure that family units, which have seen a massive increase, nearly 3,000% increase over the past 10 years or so, are treated fairly and are treated responsibly. And that's exactly what we're going to continue to do.

CORNISH: But essentially, your critics have argued that you have not done that, that you have held children in poor conditions, and we know children have died in the government's care. So why should these new regulations, which would be essentially monitored - new standards held by ICE, monitored by ICE, be trusted?

KENNEDY: Well, I want to be clear. A lot of these children get into law enforcement care in very bad situations. They've taken a dangerous journey. They're dehydrated. They have not been cared for along the way. A lot of them have been part of child smuggling rings and other smuggling rings. And they're provided immediate care as soon as they're gotten to the border. They're checked by health officials. We want to make sure that they get the best care possible in a difficult situation. This is a situation where law enforcement is essentially puts - is essentially made to care for children and family units, something that's new to the process. The whole design of our immigration system was not meant for this huge surge of family units that we've seen.

CORNISH: And yet you're looking to hold people longer. I mean, this is why we're asking because essentially there's only three residential campuses where you would bring people on. Do you have enough room at them? They're reportedly at capacity.

KENNEDY: In just the last year, we've seen a 300% jump in family units crossing the border being apprehended. We've seen a huge surge, and this is what's driving a lot of the immigration - illegal immigration across our border. So, of course, we have to address this issue. We can't just simply let it be that if you come and claim you're a family unit - sometimes you are and sometimes they're not - that we release you into this country without going through the adjudication that everybody else goes through. That's a massive loophole...

CORNISH: So are you building more facilities? I mean, we've looked at an administration that at one point was kind of having tent facilities. I mean, help us understand here where these people will go if you're holding them past 20 days.

KENNEDY: These provide standards for housing that can be expanded and established under these new regulations that will allow for the welfare and care of all family units. Again, we have seen time and time again what happens when we have these loopholes that get exploited by child smugglers and other smugglers who seek to use children to bring other people across the border. One of the key things this does is end that loophole so that no longer can people take advantage of that and profit from it.

CORNISH: We should say what you're calling a loophole was considered by the courts a standard by which to hold conditions for young children. I want to finally ask this, which is that the new regulations must still be published and approved by a judge. Last year, that same judge denied the administration's request to extend family detentions. How will you make that argument now?

KENNEDY: I just want to be clear, when you've seen such massive increases in family units the way we have seen, obviously this has been a draw. This has been a loophole that has been exploited. Law enforcement officers have said as much, that people are using this to abuse children, to use children to profit from. We are ending this. In terms of the court, we're leaving that up to DOJ. If it gets argued, we are confident that this is on strong legal grounds. And really this is about the welfare of children and the welfare of families. And we would think everybody on both sides of the aisle would want to keep family units together as they go through this process.

CORNISH: That's Adam Kennedy, deputy director of communications at the White House. Thank you for your time.

KENNEDY: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.