U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, is responding to a letter demanding he take action to end the Trump administration's policy of breaking up immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Nearly 60 elected officials from Johnson and Wyandotte Counties have called on Yoder to prevent immigrant children seeking asylum in the U.S. with their families from being separated from their parents at the border. Yoder is chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.
On June 12, in an email newsletter to constituents, Yoder addressed the issue. In it, he said he traveled to the border recently to meet with representatives from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
"As a father of two daughters, I too do not want to see children separated from their parents," Yoder said. "In my role as Homeland Security Appropriations Chairman, I met with CBP ... to understand the facts and develop solutions to this problem"
KCUR checked the rest of Yoder's statement on family separations for accuracy and context:
"This issue is caused in large part by restraints in our laws imposed by a Ninth Circuit court ruling and the actions of Mexican drug cartels."
This echoes other statements made recently by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
The ruling Yoder is referring to is Flores v. Reno, a lawsuit regarding the treatment of minors at the border. Flores was originally brought during the Reagan administration and settled in 1997 during the Clinton administration. The settlement has been the basis for judicial decisions regarding the topic ever since and underlies much of the current discussion.
The policy of separating children from their families was not "imposed" by the settlement but was rolled out by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in May. The New York Times points out that while Flores does govern how minors are to be treated in custody, there is no stipulation requiring them to be separated from their parents.
"It's important to note that any family seeking asylum who comes to the United States as a legal port of entry is not prosecuted and is sent intact as a family to have their case adjudicated. Only those who cross the border illegally are being prosecuted."
This statement is contradicted by recent high-profile cases of asylum-seekers at the southern border.
In November, media outlets reported on the case of a woman and her daughter fleeing violence from Congo who were separated from each other at a border crossing in southern California.
Another firsthand report from Texas Monthly said that agents have physically blocked people from entering the U.S. before they can legally ask for asylum.
A report from Amnesty International cites field research claiming Customs and Border Protection agents have, at times, either denied asylum seekers entry upon request or given them incorrect information on how to seek asylum.
"On my recent fact-finding mission at the border, CBP officals were clear: drug cartels are makng billions of dollars off trafficking humans and drugs across our border at increasing rates. Adults and children are being exploited and manipulated by drug cartels for the going rate of about $7,000 per person."
This figure appears to be true, and the number Yoder gives may even be considered conservative.
Reports from CNN, USA Today and Voice of San Diego all reference the rising price of border crossings — especially after tougher immigration policies were put in place by the Trump administration — and estimates run from around $6,000-$14,000 for a person to cross the border with a smuggler.
"As for actual families crossing the border illegally and seeking asylum, our laws do not allow children to be housed with their parents while we sort out their case. Parents have criminal court proceedings and the children are housed in Department of Health and Human Services facilities."
There is no law that mandates children be separated from their parents when detained at the border. But this line of reasoning has become a talking point among Republican lawmakers, including Speaker Ryan, who has pushed Congress to pass legislation to stop family separations.
The Flores settlement says immigration officials should "place each detained minor in the least restrictive environment." Ever since Sessions' announcment of a "zero tolerance" policy in which migrant parents would be automatically prosecuted, the parents have been sent to prison, a place their children — under the Flores ruling — cannot go. Put another way, Flores alone does not force children to be separated from their parents.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has rebuffed Ryan's calls for a legislative fix, pointing out that if Sessions simply were to end his "zero tolerance" policy, family separations would cease and parents could be housed with their children during detention.
"Under the Ninth Circuit court's ruling clarifying the laws, HHS is not allowed to house children for more than 20 days. So even if we want to hold a family unit together for a longer period of time, we are forbidden from doing so. The choice then becomes either releasing the adults and children together in the US pending the adjudication of the illegal border crossing charges, or holding the adults and releasing the children. Neither are good options."
Here, Yoder is referencing what President Trump and many Republicans often deride as "catch and release."
Under previous administrations — both Democrat and Republican — it has been the policy under Flores to detain families illegally crossing the border, and then release them after a certain time with an order to appear later in court.
The 20-day limit Yoder refers to come from a 2015 federal judge's ruling, following a surge of detentions at the border under the Obama administration.
Dr. Margo Schlanger, of the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse at the University of Michigan Law School, told KCUR in an email that standard is not as inflexible as Yoder suggests:
"The Flores Agreement requires that Defendants release class members 'without unnecessary delay' to certain adults, or place them in a licensed program within five days of apprehension. In 2015, [a federal judge] held that 20 days was O.K., in a crunch. But unaccompanied kids can be held for longer — if they are in a licensed facility."
Yoder's statement also ignores the larger context. Detentions have surged since the Trump Administration's "zero tolerance" policy began being enforced, creating a more urgent need to process cases.
Nicolas Telep is KCUR's morning news intern. Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story said elected officials from just Johnson County wrote a letter to Rep. Yoder urging him to take action on family separations.