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Senators Visit Southern Border Amid Increase Of Unaccompanied Minors

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This weekend, the Biden administration is struggling to deal with a new and growing surge of unaccompanied minors at the southern border. This week, there's a 30% increase in the number of young migrants being held by Customs and Border Protection.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat of Connecticut, is just back from the border and joins us now. Senator, thanks so much for being with us.

CHRIS MURPHY: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: You were with the Homeland Security secretary yesterday - El Paso - in a bipartisan delegation of senators - no press, no cameras. DHS says that was for privacy. But does this just serve the skepticism that the government has something to hide?

MURPHY: I think there's a way for DHS to allow some additional press access into these facilities. At the same time, you know, these are kids - you know, 6 years old, 12 years old - who are at, you know, incredibly vulnerable points in their life. And so I certainly understand that there's a reason why you want to be, you know, careful about giving press access to them. At the same time, we've got to be better.

SIMON: It would be possible to let reporters just walk around, not take any pictures, right?

MURPHY: Yeah. No, I've - and listen; it's something that we should all press the administration to do better on. We want to make sure that the press has access to hold the administration accountable. That's the reason I was there, to hold them accountable. And they've seen a surge that began last year, that began under the Trump administration, but it's real. It's pressing their resources. And right now, these kids are staying, you know, too long in detention centers. We're going to work on getting them additional resources so that we can process these kids and get them into HHS care rather than DHS care as quickly as possible. It's a real challenge right now along the border. We've got to do better.

SIMON: Well, according to NPR reports, hundreds of children and teens have been held in detention centers for 10 days and longer. And, of course, by law, it's supposed to be just 72 hours. You're in charge of the appropriations committee that oversees Homeland Security. Is there any kind of motivation you can give them, if I might put it that way?

MURPHY: (Laughter) Well, you know, the rise in children coming to the border has happened so quickly that it has been difficult to move them out of these detention facilities in under three days. Right now, as we speak, they are building new capacity to be able to house these children and filling new slots in the HHS system. So they are also trying to rebuild a program that the Trump administration ended in Central America to allow for kids to apply for asylum there.

You know, what Donald Trump did was essentially tear down the entire asylum system. And so when you had this massive increase in children coming to the border - first at the end of last year, continuing into the Biden administration - it was very difficult to be able to move these kids out of detention in that 72-hour period.

So the Biden administration's been working very fast to try to rebuild the asylum system, to try to let these kids once again apply to stay in this country if their lives are truly in danger back home in Guatemala or Honduras. But they inherited an absolute mess, a wreck from the Trump administration. They're trying to do better as quickly as they can. So they're going to be opening up new facilities for these kids throughout the southwest border in the coming weeks.

SIMON: Yeah.

MURPHY: Hopefully, you'll be able to see these times go back down below 72 hours very quickly. They're doing their best.

SIMON: Well, and what did conditions look like for you in the minute we have left?

MURPHY: Well, I mean, this is better than what we saw in 2019. These are not kids in, you know, so-called cages. They are not being separated from their family at the border. But these are facilities you wouldn't want your child in for more than 10 minutes. They are big, open rooms. The kids are, you know, sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor. They are sort of bunched, you know, about six inches to a foot from each other. We've got to ultimately do better. These are conditions that can just build on the trauma that these kids have already experienced in their home countries and on the long transit to the United States. Biden administration's trying as quickly as they can to process these kids in a humane way.

SIMON: Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, thanks so much for being with us.

MURPHY: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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