News Brief: Shipping Coalition, Migrant Children, Opioid Settlement

Jun 25, 2019
Originally published on June 25, 2019 7:24 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump has put new sanctions on Iran. And Iran is upset. President Hassan Rouhani criticized those sanctions and he called the White House, quote, "mentally retarded."

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So that is how low the dialogue between these two countries has gotten. A spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry described the consequences of the sanctions as a, quote, "permanent closure of the path of diplomacy." This, of course, comes as the Trump administration figures out how to respond to Iran's downing of a U.S. drone.

The Trump administration has called on U.S. allies to help in the Persian Gulf by protecting Persian Gulf shipping lanes, which is not far from the Gulf of Oman where that drone went down. President Trump still says military action against Iran is an option.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think a lot of restraint has been shown by us - a lot of restraint - and that doesn't mean we're going to show it in the future.

KING: NPR's Tom Bowman has been watching all of this. He covers the Pentagon.

Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: OK. So the administration says it wants an international coalition in the Persian Gulf. What would that look like? What would its mission be?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, we don't know what the international coalition would look like or exactly what its mission would be other than it's called maritime security mission. Some are using the word sentinel for this. And it could take several forms. You could have ships actually escort oil tankers and container ships as they're heading through the Strait of Hormuz. Or you could just have navy ships in the area kind of keeping an eye on things. And there are already a few U.S. ships in the area as well as drones - of course, similar to the ones shot down by the Iranians. And there are also surveillance planes there right now as well - so very much a work in progress at this point.

KING: But the point of this would be that the U.S. is not going it alone. Have any other countries signed on to this agreement or suggested that they think it's a good idea?

BOWMAN: Not - they haven't signed on to it yet. Some countries saying, of course it's a good idea to protect shipping going through the Strait of Hormuz where about 20% of the world's trade goes through. But, you know, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the Middle East trying to get some support from several countries for this effort.

And also, acting defense secretary Mike Esper is heading to NATO this week. And clearly that maritime security mission will come up in his meetings with the NATO countries. But again, no firm commitments from any country at this point. But they do, officials say, expect some countries to sign up.

KING: If they did, this would be a pretty interesting international effort. Is there any precedent for this? Like, has the U.S. done something like this before in the Gulf?

BOWMAN: You know, they have. Four years ago, the Navy took part - the U.S. Navy took part in accompanying U.S. and British-flagged ships after Iran seized the crew of a tanker ship flagged under the Marshall Islands. This had to do with - of all things - a financial dispute. And that escort effort lasted - or accompanying effort lasted about a little over a week.

And then, Noel, there was something called Operation Earnest Will back in the 1980s. That lasted about a year. And that was part of an effort of the American military to protect Kuwaiti-owned tankers from Iranian attacks. And that was all wrapped up in what was called the Tanker Wars during the Iran-Iraq war. And interestingly, that was the largest naval convoy operation since World War II...

KING: Wow.

BOWMAN: ...However, we're not looking at anything at all like that.

KING: OK. NPR's Tom Bowman.

Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Noel.

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KING: All right. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has moved more than 300 immigrant children from a holding facility in Texas.

MARTIN: Yeah. This comes after a team of immigration lawyers paid a visit to that facility. And when they were there, they saw kids living in just squalid conditions. They were severely neglected, some of them were severely ill. And according to multiple eyewitness accounts, these kids were just warehoused together - no basic hygiene, inadequate food and little adult supervision. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters at the White House yesterday that detention facilities for children are at maximum capacity.

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ALEX AZAR: We are full right now. We are full. We do not have capacity for more of these unaccompanied children who come across the border. And that - what happens is, they get backed up there at the Department of Homeland Security's facilities because we - I can't put someone in a bed that does not exist in our shelters.

KING: NPR's John Burnett covers immigration, and he's on the line from Austin.

Hey, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So Rachel described some of the conditions that these kids were living in. I know that you've been reporting this out extensively. What did it look like in these holding facilities?

BURNETT: Well, I spoke to one of the attorneys. And just imagine what a drunk tank in a city jail might look like - chain link walls, concrete floor, benches, no cots, open toilets. And this is how they found 350 children from ages 17 down to infants who can't walk. They were inside holding cells in a Border Patrol station in the little town of Clint, just outside of El Paso - 350 kids in a space with a capacity for 104. Kids sleeping on concrete floors, no soap, no showers, some had the flu; some of the children, as young as 8 years old, were trying to care for little babies.

One of those visiting attorneys who sounded the alarm is Elora Mukherjee. She spoke to NPR's Ari Shapiro yesterday.

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ELORA MUKHERJEE: We interviewed many children who said that they were hungry. They were obviously dirty. They were sick. They were scared. And they'd been detained by Customs and Border Patrol for weeks on end, some for nearly a month.

KING: For weeks on end, some for nearly a month; I mean, John, the law says these kids aren't supposed to be detained for longer than 72 hours. What's going on?

BURNETT: Right. Well, the Border Patrol said what they've been saying for months - that they operate short-term holding facilities designed for grown-ups and not for vulnerable populations of children. And we heard the secretary of HHS at the top of the piece saying, you know, we don't have room for them, so we can't accept these kids in some cases.

And the lawyers who visited Clint said the maddening thing is, these children had been classified as unaccompanied minors, yet many crossed the border with a family member - such as an aunt or an older sibling. And so, they say these kids should've been allowed to stay with their relatives. But federal agents separate kids from any adults who are not their immediate parents or legal guardians.

KING: All right. So the good news, I suppose, is that these kids have been moved from this very squalid facility. What happens to them now? Where are they going?

BURNETT: Well, Veronica Escobar - she's the El Paso Democrat who has the district where the Border Patrol station is located - says most of the kids have been relocated to other facilities in the region. And, eventually, they'll be transferred to child shelters. And most will be reunited with family here in the U.S. while they await a court date.

And understandably, there's been an outcry, not just from Democrats. Vice President Mike Pence called the conditions totally unacceptable. And, really, all eyes are on Congress now. They're expected to vote this week on a $4.5 billion supplemental funding bill. It's supposed to help the whole government deal with this wave of migrants.

KING: OK, so we shall wait on Congress. NPR's John Burnett.

Thanks so much, John.

BURNETT: It's a pleasure.

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KING: In Oklahoma, feuding state officials have finally struck an agreement on how to spend $85 million to fight the opioid epidemic there.

MARTIN: Yeah. Last month, the drug company Teva Pharmaceuticals paid the multimillion-dollar settlement to the state for its role in the opioid crisis. Drug companies have, so far this year, settled claims worth more than half a billion dollars. And the payouts are expected to grow fast. So all eyes are on Oklahoma to see how it's going to handle this money.

KING: Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio covers opioid litigation for NPR.

Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, how you doing?

KING: So I'm well, thanks. This Oklahoma case was a big one. A lot of money paid out - $85 million. Remind us how we got here.

MANN: Yeah. There are hundreds of these lawsuits against big drug companies all over the U.S., claiming they fueled the addiction crisis by aggressively marketing addictive opioid medications. So last month, Teva Pharmaceuticals agreed to settle with the state of Oklahoma for $85 million. But politicians were starting to lawyer up, fighting over exactly how all that money will be spent.

KING: Right. You had lawmakers, you had the state attorney general get involved, you had others get involved. Why are they fighting? Doesn't everybody agree there's an addiction crisis here?

MANN: Yeah. But money makes people kind of crazy. People don't agree what to do with the cash once it's in hand. A couple of months ago, Oklahoma's attorney general, Mike Hunter, did something that made people really mad. He cut a deal with another company, Purdue Pharma, for $270 million. Then he decided, unilaterally, how all that money would be spent.

He decided most of it would go toward a new opioid research center, not to treating people who were suffering from addiction. He acknowledged, in a speech, that he faced a lot of anger from Oklahoma's legislature.

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MIKE HUNTER: Rose petals were not strewn in my path. There was a great consternation over me going around the appropriations process.

MANN: Hunter was speaking there to a group called the Bipartisan Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

KING: OK. So he decides it's going to go to an opioid research center. Other people are saying, no, it should go to treating people suffering from addiction. And then, yesterday, this fight comes to a head in a courtroom in Oklahoma. What happened there?

MANN: So all these politicians - the governor, lawmakers and the legislature, the attorney general - cut a deal, where the cash will now go into a fund that Oklahoma's legislature will get to spend. The judge signed off on that agreement. After the lawyers are paid, all the money has to be used for programs related to the opioid epidemic. It cannot be diverted to other projects.

KING: I mean, one of the really interesting things here, Brian, is that this is happening across the country. These lawsuits are happening across the country. So this is not just a problem for Oklahoma.

MANN: Yeah. This is why people are watching Oklahoma so closely. There are literally thousands of cities, counties, state governments, tribal governments, across the country, all of them saying they've been harmed by the drug industry. They're eager to get a big slice of this money. And people think big pharma could end up paying settlements and penalties on the scale of tens of billions of dollars.

KING: Wow.

MANN: And remember. A lot of these communities are desperate. They're coping with a wave of people in their towns and villages who are opioid dependent, really ill, needing help for everything from rehab to housing to foster care. So as this money comes in, we could see governments starting to sue each other, fighting over where it will go. And that's what almost happened in Oklahoma.

KING: Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio is covering the opioid epidemic for NPR.

Brian, thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY GIRL'S "THE LIMITLESS VOID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.