News Brief: Border Security Budget, 'El Chapo' Conviction, Migrant Shelter

Feb 13, 2019
Originally published on February 13, 2019 7:35 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Donald Trump, the president of the United States, has never been one to hold back when he doesn't like something.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Am I happy at first glance? I've just got to see it. The answer is, no, I'm not. I'm not happy.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That was the president speaking there to reporters just as details were getting out about a bipartisan border security deal. This legislation includes some spending for border fencing, but it falls billions of dollars short of the money that President Trump had demanded for a border wall. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is urging the president to support this bill.

INSKEEP: When last we spoke of the border deal, the public had not yet seen the bill. So what does this agreement really do for border security? Let's ask NPR's Scott Horsley, who's on the line. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's begin with one thing we do know for sure. Nita Lowey, one of the negotiators, affirmed it last night on All Things Considered.

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NITA LOWEY: Frankly, it denies the president billions of dollars in funding for the concrete wall that he demanded.

INSKEEP: OK. The billions are missing. So if the bill doesn't have that, Scott Horsley, is there anything for the president to hold onto and claim that his side won?

HORSLEY: Well, there are a few bones for the president, to be sure. We still haven't seen the actual bill, so we will get more information as this day goes on. But we do know, as you mentioned, it includes only about a quarter of the wall funding that the president had demanded, only enough to build about 55 miles of advanced fencing. It also does not include the increased funding for detention bed that the president had sought to house people who are awaiting deportation. In fact, the authorized number of beds in this agreement is down from the number that Homeland Security is housing right now.

However, we don't believe it includes the sharp reduction in beds for people who are arrested in the interior of the United States that some on the Democratic side had been seeking. So I guess you could call that a win for the president. And also, there is some additional money for enhanced border security that doesn't involve a wall.

INSKEEP: Well, let's get to the practical effect here on the border, setting aside the politics for the moment. Is it becoming clear how this measure, this package of measures, would make the border more secure?

HORSLEY: Well, certainly a lot of this discussion has been largely symbolic. Whether we're talking about 55 miles of wall or 200-plus miles that the president had been seeking, it's all a fraction of the 2,000-mile border. This does include additional money to beef up the official ports of entry. And it's important remember, Steve, that there is a huge amount of legitimate cross-border traffic that sometimes gets lost as we talk about illicit traffic. That's enormously important in places like El Paso, like McAllen, like San Diego. There is also, however, non-human traffic. And a lot of the fencing that is in this bill is in the Rio Grande Valley, an environmentally sensitive area, and that could be affected adversely by the wall that is included.

INSKEEP: OK. All right, Scott, thanks for the update, really appreciate it.

HORSLEY: You're very welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.

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INSKEEP: Many of the stories in the news today touch on U.S. relations with Latin America. That is certainly true of the American jury that convicted the Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

MARTIN: Yeah. That verdict was handed down in a federal courthouse in Brooklyn on Tuesday. U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue spoke outside the courthouse after the verdict was read.

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RICHARD DONOGHUE: This conviction, we expect, will bring a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. It is a sentence from which there is no escape and no return.

MARTIN: The jury's decision came after weeks of gripping, at times even disturbing, testimony. A number of former cartel members actually took the stand and then detailed the brutality and bloodshed that was at the core of El Chapo's cartel, a cartel which was responsible for a lot of the flow of narcotics into the U.S. for decades. So the question now, how is this conviction being viewed back in Mexico?

INSKEEP: Well, NPR's Carrie Kahn is going to tell us because she is in Mexico City. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, good morning.

INSKEEP: Is this a big subject of conversation where you are?

KAHN: Well, it's been covered in the press here - definitely isn't dominating the news, but you know, some of the trial's more salacious revelations got some good media play. Remember the day in the trial when this convicted Colombian trafficker testified for the prosecution that Guzman had paid the former president a $100-million bribe? Yeah, that barely got coverage here. I think part of it was that Mexicans were in the midst of a crippling gas crisis. But also I think there's a lot of corruption fatigue since, you know, these past years have been plagued by revelation after revelation of high-level corruption and conflict-of-interest scandals by the previous administration.

But yesterday, we went out after the verdict, and we did get reaction from Mexicans here in the capital. And by far, most were pleased with Guzman's conviction. One high school student said, you know, maybe in some parts of the country, Guzman is still seen as - romanticized for his outlaw persona, but for him, he was a brutal criminal who caused this country so much pain. And this one 30-year-old computer salesman really summed up what a lot of different people said, is that how Mexico could and should have been the one to try Guzman. And they just felt bad that it's unfortunate that a foreign government had to bring this man to justice once and for all.

INSKEEP: Carrie, I'm curious. When you talk about the relatively muted coverage in the media, I have heard over the years, perhaps you have as well, of Mexican journalists who are threatened, who are killed, editors who are told not to put certain things in the paper. Is this something that, if you're in the Mexican media, you have to be a little bit careful about what you say, even though obviously Guzman is in federal custody now?

KAHN: Definitely. Definitely. There is a lot of self-censorship here by the press and - but there are also a lot of courageous and brave journalists that try and cover this drug war and the cartels as best as they can. But it is - you know, Mexico has one of the highest rates of journalists being murdered in the world.

INSKEEP: Do you have a sense as to whether Guzman's conviction will significantly affect the actual flow of drugs into, through, out of Mexico into the United States?

KAHN: Well, just looking at Guzman's cartel specifically, the Sinaloa cartel, it hasn't lost much strength since his arrest in 2016 or his extradition in 2017. It's still one of the largest in the world, and that's according to the U.S. and the DEA's - the Drug Enforcement Administration's - last year, their drug threat assessment. They said in it that the cartel maintains the most expansive international footprint of any Mexican drug organization still.

INSKEEP: Wow. OK, Carrie, thanks for the update, really appreciate it.

KAHN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City.

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INSKEEP: OK. Thousands of migrant children continue to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border every month without their parents.

MARTIN: Right. And then many of these kids are then transferred to an emergency intake shelter in South Florida. It's called Homestead, and it's been the focus of a lot of controversy. It is the largest shelter for migrant children in the U.S., and it's the only one run by a for-profit corporation, and there's no oversight from state regulators.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Burnett toured the shelter. He's with us this morning. Hi, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what did you see when you got in there?

BURNETT: Well, really it's - you know, the tour guide tried to make it seem like it was a summer camp to us. This was actually my third tour of a large government child shelter, and there was certain similarities among all of them. They show you the soccer fields and the basketball courts and classrooms and the Xbox games and the cafeteria where they get three hot meals and two snacks a day. And they tell us about the holiday parties and the talent shows. And then you see the kids, these lines of 12 Central American teenagers at a time, they're all walking very orderly, single file, escorted by a youth worker. They smile and say hola. But the thing is, you never really get to talk to the children or record anything.

INSKEEP: So that leaves you going for other sources of information, as well you should. Are there people who have spoken with the children that can give you information?

BURNETT: Right. And this was really interesting. I had the good fortune to get a fuller picture of the lives of these migrant kids in the Homestead shelter. I sat down with a group of attorneys who'd been granted access to the children by a federal judge. They oversee the welfare of migrant kids in U.S. custody. And I asked them, OK, so this is what reporters see on our sort of stage-managed tours. What do you, the lawyers, see? This is Leecia Welch. She's director of legal advocacy at the National Center for Youth Law.

LEECIA WELCH: We see a very different picture. We see extremely traumatized children, some of whom sit across from us and can't stop crying over what they're experiencing.

BURNETT: So Welch described what she said was well-meaning policies gone horribly awry. She told me about adolescents who've been traumatized in their home country and then by the grueling journey north, and now they're forbidden to touch each other - even if they're siblings, even if they've made close friends to the shelter and one gets transferred, and they can't hug that person goodbye. The shelter says the no-touch rules are there to protect the children.

INSKEEP: Why is it significant to note that this is a for-profit detention facility, or it's being run in any case by a for-profit company?

BURNETT: So, you know, I've reported about private companies that run immigrant detention facilities for ICE a lot over the years, but I had no idea that private industry was moving into child shelters. There's a Florida company called Comprehensive Health Services that runs Homestead, which now has 1,600 kids. The government pays CHS about $1.2 million a day to care for these kids. The company says that the children, that their safety and welfare is their top priority, and they follow all federal regulations to the letter. But there's definitely good money to be made here. I also found out that, just in the last two weeks, this company had taken in over three - rather, this company has taken over three additional shelters in south Texas, for a total of 500 additional migrant youngsters.

INSKEEP: So when you call up this company, and you say, you know, I can see you're making a profit here, and I've also spoken with lawyers for children you're holding, and they say they're traumatized, what's the company say to that?

BURNETT: Well, they'll say, and the government will tell you, that their mission is to get the custody of these kids out of the Border Patrol, in these cage-like holding cells that have been so harshly criticized, and actually get them into places like Homestead, which are - you know, they're not summer camps, but they're a major improvement over the austere border cells. And of course, it's not the environment of a loving family, but they have case managers at all the shelters who work to find sponsors that the kids can go live with. And immigrant advocates say that the kids still are staying too long at these shelters - 67 days.

INSKEEP: Sixty-seven days on average.

BURNETT: On average, right.

INSKEEP: John, thanks for your reporting, really appreciate it.

BURNETT: You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Burnett. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.