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Number Of Migrant Children In Texas Shelters Is Increasing

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to go back to a story that commanded our attention earlier this year - the issue of migrant children who traveled unaccompanied or who were separated from their families at the southern border. In a related matter, The Washington Post is reporting that President Trump has reached a tentative agreement with the incoming government of Mexico that would require migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to wait in Mexico while their cases are being processed. The incoming Mexican administration has denied there is an agreement, but if true, it's the latest iteration of the Trump administration's upending of long-standing practices that have governed border policy, including its so-called zero-tolerance policy that led to separations of hundreds of kids from their parents seeking asylum.

Now, that policy officially ended in June, but its effects are still being seen in the record number of migrant children staying in shelters across the U.S. According to new federal statistics, some 14,000 unaccompanied minors are now in shelters. More than 5,000 of those children are in shelters in Texas, where Texas Tribune reporter Edgar Walters has been looking at why the numbers are growing despite the fact that fewer kids are coming across the border. And he's with us now from Austin.

Welcome.

EDGAR WALTERS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you've just published a report saying that the number of migrant children in Texas shelters reached a new high in November. That number is increasing rather than decreasing. And I think this is a surprise to many people who remember all the legal wrangling over the separation of children - who thought that, in fact, that they were being reunited or that that was really the major push there. So what is going on?

WALTERS: Essentially, in June, there was this big influx of children into the shelter system for unaccompanied minors because under the zero-tolerance policy, they had been separated from their parents. But what's going on now is kind of the effects of a more subtle policy change also from this summer which has made it more difficult to get children out of shelters and placed with families. The difference now is that any adults in the home where a child is being placed is subjected to these background checks involving fingerprints and that that fingerprint data is being shared with immigration officials.

So that's really kind of the crucial difference. So whereas before, there had been these welfare checks really ensuring that the caregivers of the home were, you know, who they say they were and were kind of responsible adult caregivers, now the breadth of the background check is much broader.

MARTIN: So you're saying that the vetting process has been made more thorough. They weren't fingerprinting families before. They would do some sort of check, but it didn't involve that fingerprinting process.

WALTERS: And, most crucially, that information was not being shared with immigration officials. But now we know from congressional testimony that the federal government has used those background checks to arrest actually more than 40 individuals. You know, just - you know, parents or grandmas, aunts and uncles who would normally take in the children - many of them may have, you know, questionable immigration status themselves. They may be undocumented, etc. What we know is that the federal government is actually taking that data from the background checks and sharing it with immigrations officials, who can then arrest the family members and begin deportation proceedings.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about the conditions in the shelters. What - there have been reports of poor living conditions in the shelters. There are now facilities that are requesting to have more beds added to make room for more children. What does your reporting indicate about the conditions in the shelters?

WALTERS: So these shelters are privately run. They are often run by nonprofits. Many of them are religiously affiliated. But they're funded through the federal government. And government inspectors have found, you know, hundreds of deficiencies in these shelters. You know, there have been lawsuits against these shelters kind of alleging serious deficiencies in care. One shelter in the Houston area in particular is accused of over-relying on psychotropic drugs to essentially drug these children rather than providing sort of comprehensive mental health care but just instead relying on psychotropic drugs. So there are kind of serious allegations against some of these facilities.

MARTIN: Edgar, is there any reporting on the effect of these long stays on the children who are staying in these shelters?

WALTERS: So having these shelter stays really be double from what they historically have been - it can take a toll on a child's mental health. And I think that the research is very clear that a preferred placement for a child, when possible, should not be in these large facilities where they're not getting that one-on-one sort of adult attention that they necessarily need all the time or that they may be able to be placed with their sibling groups if they came with siblings. It's clear that a preferred placement for a child should be with the family if possible. And we've heard stories from shelter workers who describe these kids really suffering from, you know, mental health problems, PTSD-like symptoms just from these prolonged stays.

MARTIN: What are Texas officials saying about this? Are they are expressing a view about housing these children, the conditions they're in? What are they saying?

WALTERS: The response has been remarkably nonexistent. I don't think that I've seen any statements coming from the governor or the senators. And I think part of that is just that there hasn't been this sustained outrage. I think there's just not a lot of awareness that, in fact, the number of kids in these shelters continues to grow.

MARTIN: That's Edgar Walters. He's a reporter for The Texas Tribune.

Edgar, thanks so much for talking to us.

WALTERS: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.