This week on Reveal, we examine U.S. immigration policies that affect millions of people who live illegally in the United States. We hear from families and children caught in a system with shifting rules, and those in charge of enforcing those laws on the ground.

First, Reveal’s Bernice Yeung breaks down a policy called expedited removal. It allows law enforcement to fast track deportations for people arrested close to the U.S. border. President Donald Trump wants to dramatically expand its use. Critics predict that broadening the practice to the entire country would place too much power in the hands of immigration agents.

Despite the policy’s name, expedited removal isn’t always fast. If immigrants claim they’re afraid to return to their home countries, federal detention facilities can hold them indefinitely while authorities decide their cases. WHYY reporter Laura Benshoff brings us the story of a mother and son who spent nearly half the child’s life under lock and key. As a reporter, Benshoff has followed them and other families in detention to try to understand why Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds kids for months, sometimes years, even though it’s technically illegal.

Finally, reporter Ashley Cleek brings us to Florida, where a surge in unaccompanied minors from Central America has strained family and juvenile courts. As a result, young immigrants  seeking protection in this country find themselves facing judges who normally handle custody battles and child abuse allegations. Those judges argue that the federal Department of Homeland Security is responsible for immigration issues; the government sees it differently. Caught in the middle are kids like Isaias, a 17-year-old from Guatemala who fled gang violence in his tiny hometown.  

Dig Deeper

  • Read: How Trump is expanding the government’s secret deportation weapon


Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

 Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 – 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Anna:From the center for investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Anna [Sail 00:00:07], sitting in for Al [Letson 00:00:09] this week. I’m the host of Death, Sex, and Money, the podcast from WNYC studios. My show is personal interviews, often focusing on the most important relationships in our lives. This episode of reveal is about when those relationships come up against US immigration policy. We’ll hear from families and children caught in the system with shifting rules, and from those in charge of enforcing those rules on the ground. But before we get started, I want to tell you about something we’re doing on today’s show that will give you something extra while you’re listening.
Here’s how it works. During the show the reporters and I will let you know when you can text us to see some of the things you’re hearing about. It might be photos of some of the people in the story, or a link to a court document. You get the idea. But let’s try it out first before we get going. Get out your phone, and text the words, “Hey Anna”, to the phone number 202-873-8325. Again that number is 202-873-8325. Just text the words, “Hey Anna”, and you’ll get a photo of me in a couple of minutes.
Okay let’s dive into this show. We start in Los Angeles county.
Speaker 2:We’re going to go ahead and we’ll start over here.
Anna:It’s late August, just after 5 o’clock in the morning. The inky black sky mirrors the dark storefronts of the strip mall. In a parking lot, more than a half dozen immigration agents in bullet proof vest huddle for a briefing.
Speaker 3:For this operation this morning there’ll be a 37 year old Guatemalan national who has two prior convictions for DUI and two prior convictions for reckless driving.
Anna:Agents from immigration and customs enforcement, or ICE, are staking out the homes of convicted felons who crossed illegally into the US. The agents plan to arrest them when they leave their homes.
Speaker 3:You’ll be number two. On the fact sheet it’ll be [Grodrigo Vormot 00:02:07]. It will be a 29 year old Mexican national who was convicted earlier this year carrying a loaded firearm.
Anna:The people on today’s list have criminal convictions for drunk driving, sexual battery, and gun possession. If the agents are able to make arrests, ICE will start their deportation proceedings right away.
Speaker 3:That’s all I have for now guys, and we’re ready to roll.


Anna:Operations like this attract media attention and create anxiety for immigrants. ICE arrests of criminals and non criminals are up 35% since Donald Trump became president. They’ve happened at restaurants, court houses, and sometimes like these, early in the morning outside an immigrants home. Reveals Bernice [Yuring 00:02:55] has been investigating the administrations crack down on immigration, and went along on a recent ICE raid.


Bernice:I ride shotgun next to Jorge Field, who helps run what ICE calls it’s enforcement and removal operations in Los Angeles.


Jorge:We are in the city of [Pakorma 00:03:16] in the San Fernando Valley. It’s North east of the city of Los Angeles.


Bernice:Jorge is in his 50’s. He’s got salt and pepper hair and a goatee. Like the other agent’s he sports a navy blue bullet proof vest with the words ICE and police in big block letters.


Jorge:It’s up the street here.


Bernice:We park around the corner from the suspects home.


Jorge:I grew up in a neighborhood like this is a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.


Bernice:To him, these arrests are about protecting public safety and respecting the law.


Jorge:I’m a first generation American. My dad came to this country, so it’s not something we don’t understand the reasons behind why they come. There’s just a process in how you should come.


Bernice:He says everyone doesn’t belong here.


Jorge:In this case, he was arrested for carrying a loaded firearm. I’m not sure what the justification is to say, “No, this person should stay in the United States”.


Bernice:ICE agents finished making four arrests a few hours later. Jorge tells me what’s supposed to happen next.


Jorge:They will be taken into custody, depending on the processing and everything else, will depend on whether they remain in custody or whether they’re released on a bond and then they will get an appointment to see an immigration judge.


Anna:Those court appearances put the breaks on deportation. More than a half million cases clog the nation’s immigration courts. That means after they’re arrests, people can wait weeks, months, or even years to see an immigration judge. The federal court that handles cases for the Los Angeles region has the second largest backlog in the country.


We got a hold of documents that show just how long the wait is. You can see a schedule of these hearings by texting the word, “Wait”, W A I T, to 202-873-8325. That number again 202-873-8325. You’ll see that some hearing dates have already been scheduled as far out as 2021. So Bernice, ICE is making more arrests and it’s taking longer and longer for people to actually get deported?


Bernice:That’s right. And that’s a problem for president Trump. He’s taken a really hard stance against illegal immigration. So he has to find a way to speed up these deportations, and one way that he could do that is to expand a policy that’s actually been around since 1996. It’s called expedited removal.


Anna:So how has it worked up to this point?


Bernice:It’s basically kind of a fast track deportation. So, immigration officials look for people at the border who don’t have the right documents to come into the country. And then they can basically send them back across the boarder straight away, deport them immediately. No judge, no hearing.


Anna:How is the Trump administration looking to expand expedited removal?


Bernice:What he’d like to do is essentially take it from where it’s applied now, which is right near the border. 100 miles or so from the border, and for people who have been in the country for a pretty short period of time, about two weeks, and take it to the entire country. Expand it nationwide and apply it to people who’ve been in the country for longer, for up to two years.


Anna:So that’s what president Trump wants to do. To get an idea of where people can be picked up under the current policy. Text the word, “Map”, to the number 202-873-8325. And Bernice, you went down to Mexico to meet someone who was turned away from the border under expedited removal.


Bernice:Right. I got in a car and I drove across the border from San Diego into Tijuana, and ended up in a neighborhood on a Sunday morning and it was already pretty busy in the streets.


Speaker 6:(foreign language 00:07:12]


Bernice:The houses around me are concrete with faded painted and electric garage doors. People walk their dogs in the street. Kids in soccer uniforms stroll to practice. I’m here to meet a man we’ll call Ernesto Ramirez. We’re changing his first name because he’s worried federal agents may target his family. Some members live illegally in the US. Ernesto has a wide face, thick features. Short cropped brown hair and expressive brown eyes. He’s thoughtful and soft spoke.


Ernseto:(foreign language 00:07:56]


Bernice:He says he first crossed the boarder without papers in 1997, around the time expedited removal became law. Back then it was pretty easy to walk to the border. That’s what Ernesto did. Then he waited for someone to pick him up in a car. In ten minutes he says, he was on the other side. Three year later, he removed to his hometown [Varacuz 00:08:21], Mexico, where his father was dying of cancer. After the funeral, Ernesto tried to re-enter the United States in a car at the Tijuana border crossing. By then, the laws and the level of enforcement had changed.


Ernseto:I used a Visa, it was a good one, but it wasn’t mine.


Bernice:The boarder inspector figured that out pretty fast.


Ernseto:I went in, they arrested me in the morning, and I was out the same night around 10. I didn’t have a court hearing or see a judge. They only gave me this letter and I was deported for five years.


Bernice:That letter was an expedited removal order. For Ernesto, it happened so fast he said he didn’t realize how serious it was.


Ernseto:I didn’t think of the consequences. That part I understand, I admit. I just didn’t know that it would affect me this much.


Bernice:Border inspectors gave him a document to sign in English, a language he couldn’t read, and sent him back to Mexico. It was a textbook example of how expedited removal is supposed to work. An immigration officer and a supervisor had decided on the spot whether or not to report. But it wasn’t always this way. To see how we got here, let’s turn back the clock.


Leslie:I’m Leslie Stall. Those stories and Andy Rooney tonight on 60 Minutes.


Bernice:It’s 1993 and the TV show 60 Minutes exposes that everyone who arrived in the US asking for asylum got in. No questions asked.


Dan:Every single person on the planet earth. If he gets in to this country can stay indefinitely by saying two magic words. Political Asylum.


Bernice:That’s Dan Stein, president of the federation for-


 Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 – 00:10:04]
 Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 – 00:20:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Dan Stein:Asylum.


Interviewer:That’s Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform from his interview with the CBS news magazine. His organization focuses on reducing immigration to this country. Once asylum seekers are released, he said many don’t show up from their immigration hearings. 60 Minutes also highlighted the case of Ramsey Yousef, part of the group behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He had gotten into the US by asking for asylum.


Dan Stein:He could be a murderer, go through three safe countries, use a phony document at pre-inspection to get on the plane, flush the documents down the toilet when you get here, say political asylum at JFK Airport in New York City, boom, you’ve got your work document and you’re in.


Interviewer:Now does that really happen?


Dan Stein:Yes. It happens all the time.


Interviewer:This story shocked viewers and policymakers. Three years later, congress passed a slate of stricter immigration laws, including expedited removal. Instead of letting people into the country while they waited to see an immigration judge, the law granted border inspectors a new power, to immediately kick out anyone who didn’t have a fear of returning to their home country.


Jessica Vaughn:All right, here’s my office.


Interviewer:Jessica Vaughn has supported that move from the start.


Jessica Vaughn:There’s piles of paper everywhere. A lot of newspaper clippings from the pre-digital era.


Interviewer:She’s with the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, DC. It’s an influential think tank that wants to restrict immigration. Jessica maintains that people who enter this country illegally aren’t playing by the rules.


Jessica Vaughn:If we don’t remove them promptly, then it’s an incentive for other people to try to come and take advantage of our system.


Interviewer:The fact that it doesn’t involve a judge, she says, is one of the benefits.


Jessica Vaughn:It doesn’t make any sense that taxpayers should have to subsidize a long drawn out proceeding for someone who caught coming into the country illegally.


Interviewer:Expedited removal eliminates that proceeding and the possibility of court challenges except in rare cases. Los Angeles based immigration lawyer Jennifer [Rigelski 00:12:10] says that’s a lot of power to give to border officers.


Jennifer R.:Basically, there’s an officer who acts like a judge and acts like an attorney and decides whether or not you have a legal right to be in the United States.


Interviewer:This makes it harder for Jennifer to do her job as head of the deportation defense team for a major immigration law firm.


Jennifer R.:So an immigration judge has no authority to review an immigration officer’s decision to order someone removed, expeditedly. Even if they look at the case and say this is egregious, they can’t do anything, they can’t even consider it.


Interviewer:Problems have come up. A federal commission found border agents didn’t offer some asylum seekers a chance to ask for refuge. Court records also show border officers have deported US citizens. Mistakes aside, there’s no denying expedited removal is fast.


Pres. Trump:A nation without borders is not a nation. Beginning, the United States of America gets back control of its borders, gets back its borders.


Interviewer:Part of that means controlling what happens in the country. Trump also wants to expand expedited removal beyond the border so agents could pick up people anywhere in the country. Local law enforcement agencies could, too, if they’ve agreed to work with ICE. Immigration advocates worry that at its most extreme, this could lead to a national show-me-your-papers atmosphere. Because the Department of Homeland Security is still weighing the proposal, agency officials declined to answer my questions about what an expansion could mean for their operations and for immigrants.


Expedited removal was supposed to discourage illegal crossings. It didn’t stop Ernesto.


Ernesto:[Spanish 00:14:02] I was punished for five years, but the thing is I didn’t respect that date.


Interviewer:After agents deported Ernesto through expedited removal in 1999, they banned him from the US for five years. But he snuck back into the country the next day. For nearly 20 years, he and his family lived in California. Ernesto and his wife had a son, a US citizen. He worked at an Italian restaurant and became active in his Catholic church.


Over time, Ernesto forgot about his expedited removal. But ICE didn’t. In April, agents arrested him as he climbed into his truck to go to work.


Ernesto:[Spanish 00:14:43] They didn’t send me to see a judge. The officer told me I didn’t have any rights. The right to see a judge or see a lawyer. He said you have to get out.


Interviewer:For four months, Ernesto sat in a detention center near San Diego while we waited to see if the government would let him stay. Over the summer, ICE deported him.


Expedited removal is fast and there are no second chances. The process is possible at the border because the courts have found that constitutional rights are more limited there. But in the rest of the country, even people who are in the US illegally are entitled to what the law calls due process. In this case, the right to argue why they should be able to stay here. Taking expedited removal nationwide would rob them of that.


Jessica Vaughn:I don’t doubt that there will be some legal challenges.


Interviewer:That’s Jessica Vaughn of the Center for Immigration Studies again. She says congress created expedited removal and it has the right to decide how immigration proceedings go. Still, she expects push back.


Jessica Vaughn:There are a lot of groups that are opposed to immigration enforcement and that want to try to put up hurdles and landmines for ICE and for the Border Patrol in any way they can.


Interviewer:Expanding expedited removal across the country raises other questions. If immigrants are picked up during a raid, how would they prove that they’d been in the country for more than two years? What kind of proof would they need?


Claude Arnold:Hello, this is Claude.


Interviewer:I called Claude Arnold at ICE, he oversaw the largest criminal workplace investigation at an Iowa poultry processing plant in 2008 and retired after nearly 30 years with the agency. The government wouldn’t discuss pending policy, so we don’t know exactly what proof ICE will ask for. But Claude has some thoughts.


Claude Arnold:You know, leases, apartment leases. Any kind of bills from the residence that they show they’ve been paying the utilities in their name for two years. Been working. Getting a paycheck for two years. Anything like that. But it has to be to the satisfaction of the officer.


Interviewer:David Martin helped draft the legislation for expedited removal during the Clinton administration when he was the top lawyer for the federal immigration agency.


David Martin:A person who is apprehended in central Virginia may not have the kind of evidence easily at hand that could show that yes, I’ve actually been here for three or four years.


Interviewer:So the wrong people could be deported?


David Martin:Yes. The wrong people could be subjected to that.


Interviewer:Claude says it’s not necessarily the government’s problem if immigrants don’t have their documents handy.


Claude Arnold:The burden is on the alien. Right? So the burden’s on them, that’s what the law requires. So if they can’t show it, they can’t show it.


Interviewer:There’s still a lot being considered by immigration officials but there’s one thing we do know for sure. Even when expedited removal works as it’s supposed to, it can separate families.


Ernesto:[Spanish 00:18:00]


Interviewer:Although he’s back in Mexico, Ernesto hasn’t let go of his life in America. He shows me pictures of his kids and his church in southern California. He and his wife talk several times a day on the phone. He knows, though, there’s no going back.


Crossing the border again could mean prison time. So he’s looking for a steady job, crashing with relatives or church friends in Tijuana. He makes some money catering the Italian dishes he learned to make in San Diego before ICE caught up with him.


For my visit, Ernesto prepares three different pasta dishes. At the dining room table, he and his hosts bless the meal before they eat.




Interviewer:On my car ride back across the border, I text Ernesto to tell him I enjoyed the meal. He replies he’d served his specialties. In the same text, he praises God and he ends with a joke: “Well, then. President Trump has just lost a good cook.”


President Trump isn’t the only one who has leaned on expedited removal. Under President Obama, the Department of Homeland Security deported almost 140,000 people last year. That’s about 40% of all deportations. If Trump’s expansion goes through, an immigrant advocacy group predicts up to 180,000 more people could be deported under this process, meaning they get no chance at an appeal or to see a judge before leaving the country.


When we come back, a four-year-old immigrant gets his day in court.


Speaker 9:All right. We’re on the record.


Speaker 10:[Spanish 00:19:50] Good afternoon.


Speaker 11:[Spanish 00:19:52].


Interviewer:You’re listening to Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


 Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 – 00:20:04]
 Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 – 00:30:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Al Letson:Hey, guys. Al Letson here. I want to thank Anna for filling in for me this week. I have long admired her work on Death, Sex and Money, and she is a very close, personal friend of mine. I love her. If you haven’t listened to Anna’s podcast, do yourself a favor; download it now, at least right after you listen to our show. Whether it’s an interview with Gloria Steinem, Jeff Daniels, or an Uber driver, Anna has a way of talking to people that makes you feel like she’s known them forever. She’s so warm and personable, and you’ll learn things about people you would never expect. It’s always a good listen, and seriously, Anna is one of the best people I know. If you get a chance, check out her podcast: Death, Sex, and Money.


Anna Sale:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Anna Sale, host of the podcast, Death, Sex and Money, from WNYC Studios. I’m filling in for Al Letson this week. Earlier in the show, we heard how the Trump Administration might expand a policy, called Expedited Removal, to make it easier and faster to deport people. Despite the policy’s name, it isn’t always fast. If immigrants claim they’re afraid to return to their home countries, they can be held indefinitely while authorities decide their cases.


That’s what happened to 34 year old Lorena, and her son, Carlos. We’re not using their real names, because Lorena’s afraid immigration authorities will punish her for speaking about her time in detention. In August, they went before an immigration judge in York, Pennsylvania.


Judge:All right, we’re on the record.


Lorena:[Foreign language 00:21:49].


Anna Sale:The court’s audio recording is a little crackly.


Judge:Good afternoon.


Lorena:[Foreign language 00:21:54]


Carlos:[inaudible 00:21:55]


Anna Sale:On the right side of the court room, a large flat screen TV shows Lorena and Carlos sitting at a small, white table. They’re video conferenced in from a federal immigrant detention facility, about an hour’s drive from where the judge sits. Carlos is four years old. His front teeth are missing, and he’s got deep dimples. His head barely reaches the top of his chair. Judge [inaudible 00:22:18] compliments Carlos for dressing up and for slicking down his hair.


Judge:You’re looking good. I like the suit you’re wearing.


Lorena:[Foreign language 00:22:25]


Anna Sale:The judge will decide whether to release Lorena and her son. The family’s lawyer, Bridget Cambria, tells the court she’s requested their release many times, but ICE always pushes back.


Bridget Cambria:[crosstalk 00:22:38] We’re completely at the behest of ICE, and they have refused to release them for 650 days, for no particular reason.


Anna Sale:That’s 650 days, nearly half of Carlos’ life. ICE’s attorney, John Staples, gives a reason: expedited removal. Staples says the policy shuts families like this one out of the courts, so they shouldn’t be before a judge at all.


John Staples:The respondents in expedited removal proceeding, it’s different, so- [crosstalk 00:23:02]


Anna Sale:While the attorneys debate his freedom, Carlos barely pays attention. Head down, he scribbles on a piece of paper until the judge interrupts him.


Judge:Are you coloring?


Lorena:[Foreign language 00:23:13]




Lorena:Si, yes.


Judge:That’s very good.


Anna Sale:Lorena and Carlos are hoping this judge will free them. We’re going to tell you what happened in court that day, to Lorena and Carlos. Reporter Laura Benshoff, of WHYY in Philadelphia, was there. She’s been following them, and other families in detention, to try to understand why ICE holds kids for months, sometimes years, even though it’s technically illegal. Here’s Laura.


Laura Benshoff:When I first talked with Carols’ mother, Lorena, back in March, ICE had detained them for about a year and a half, at the Berks Family Residential Center, 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia. ICE doesn’t let me record inside, so we talk on the phone with an interpreter’s help.


Lorena:[Foreign language 00:24:07]


Laura Benshoff:Lorena says visitors may not see barbed wire fences, or bars on the windows, but it feels like a prison, because they’re always being watched. As a mother, she feels powerless.


Translator:There are some days, a lot of days, when my kid tells me, “Mom, let’s leave. Let’s get out of here. I don’t want to be here.” He asks me, “When can we leave?” I don’t have an answer, because I don’t know when.


Laura Benshoff:The place, all beige and linoleum, used to be a nursing home. Inside, the days melt together: wake up, then breakfast in the cafeteria, usually processed stuff. For the kids, there’s school in the classroom wing during the spring and fall. The center pays the adult detainees a dollar a day to do manual work, like cleaning the common rooms. At night, guards check the bedrooms every 15 minutes, shining their flashlights over the families. As many as three families share each bedroom. To lift their sprits, Lorena and the other women created a ritual: 10:00 AM prayer service in the detention center’s small chapel.


Translator:I’m Evangelical, and I think that if I didn’t look for God, like I do every day here, it would be hard to go on.


Laura Benshoff:Lorena started leading the daily worship service after ICE deported the woman who used to do it. If you want to see what the center looks like, we do have some video you can see. Text the word inside, to the number we gave you before. That’s inside, to 202-873-8325. In some ways, Lorena’s path from Honduras to the United States was typical. She and Carlos fled after a gang threatened them.


Translator:They started to break in and take my stuff. The truth is that sometimes, simply by being a single mother, you become an easy target for them.


Laura Benshoff:They requested asylum. The first part of that process is an interview. The month Lorena and Carlos arrived, nearly 80% of people got through that test and continued to the next stage. This is where their story gets way less typical. Lorena says the officers who assessed her claim were openly skeptical.


Translator:They told me, “Don’t make up stories,” because they don’t believe. They don’t believe what’s happening in our country.


Laura Benshoff:The asylum officer denied Lorena’s claim on the first go around. In most cases, that would have meant deportation to Honduras. In their case, the American Civil Liberties Union stepped in. It saw what happened as part of a disturbing trend, the Federal Government rejecting valid asylum claims, and decided to fight it. On behalf of Lorena, Carlos, and about 30 other mothers and children, the ACLU sued the Federal Government to try to get a second look at their asylum claims. That was in 2015. Carlos, barely three when he and his mother arrived, turned four years old inside the Berks Family Residential Center.


Family detention isn’t supposed to stretch on and on, the way theirs has. That’s because of a big class action settlement from the mid 1990’s, where the government agreed to treat detained kids humanely, and to keep their detentions short. During the Obama Administration, ICE tried to get around that agreement. It began holding kids by themselves, and kids with their parents, much longer than before. As family detentions in Pennsylvania stretched into weeks, then months, then more than a year, local advocacy groups began holding monthly protests outside the center.


Speaker 10:[Foreign Language 00:28:03]


Laura Benshoff:US senators wrote letters urging the Department of Homeland Security to release the families. Global human rights organizations condemned the US over family detention. One reason for all this criticism: there’s evidence that living in detention is, by itself, bad for children. Psychotherapist, Kathy Miller, is one of several who visits the Berks center to evaluate detainees when their lawyers request it. She’s met with a half dozen kids there. One seven year old’s symptoms have really stuck with her.


Kathy Miller:Any time any kind of trauma discussion happened, he would run laps around the tiny table we sat at, and then jump up and slap the wall really loudly. That right there, it’s so common for kids.


Laura Benshoff:This kind of distraction is a classic sign of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in kids, Kathy says. This boy’s mother said that over and over, he wrapped a lanyard around his neck like a noose, and said he wanted to kill himself. Kathy drew out that he was terrified of returning to El Salvador, where gangs had targeted his father, and he’d seen the bodies of family friends they’d killed. By Kathy’s second visit, he’d been there for a year and a half. She says he’d gotten worse, not better.


Kathy Miller:There is a direct correlation between the length of time that a child is in detention and worsening symptoms.


Laura Benshoff:ICE deported that boy and his mother in May. Kathy wrote up a full report about this boy’s mental health, and how living in the center had affected him. You can see a snippet of that document by texting the word report, to the number we gave you before. That’s report, to 202-873-8325. As for Carlos, he cries a lot. He-


 Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 – 00:30:04]
 Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 – 00:40:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Al:As for Carlos, he cries a lot. He hides under the bed when kids he’s gotten close to are released or deported. An outside psychologist never evaluated him, but Lorena did see one who diagnosed her with depression. In that evaluation, Lorena admitted she sometimes thinks about killing herself. In the past dozen years, at least seven people in ICE detention have committed suicide. Over the phone, Lorena tells me she’s feeling anxious.


Lorena:I’m stressed. I have gained a lot of weight. I can’t sleep at night.


Al:There’s an inhouse psychologist at Burke’s. Lorena says she doesn’t trust him. That distrust carries over to other problems. In court documents, the women in the Burke complained, the staff and nurses routinely downplayed their medical concerns. Like the parasite and painful cavities that bothered Carlos. Lorena says he suffered for a while before getting treatment.


Lorena:I think four months? Three to four months. He’d have pain for a few days, then it would stop, then it would come back.


Al:Officials with ICE wouldn’t talk to me for this story, but they did write responses to some of my questions. In a statement, an agency spokesman said, “Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment the families arrive throughout their entire stay at the center.”


Immigration lawyers and other advocates brought detainees complaints to a Burke’s Country Commissioner’s meeting last year.


Speaker 3:Speaking of medical issues …


Al:During the public comment period, Attorney Caroline Donaho recited a list of problems.


Caroline Donaho:We have a distinction at Burke’s of having the only rape conviction of the three family detention centers.


Al:Burke’s County wants to keep the center open. ICE pays the county to run it day-to-day. In return, the region gets more than 60 jobs and the country government pulls in an extra million dollars a year in revenue. County Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt told the audience the detainees’ complaints don’t tell the whole story.


Kevin Barnhardt:These folks are given medical care, dental care, psychological care. We have been inspected more than any facility in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the last two years.


Al:This meeting ended abruptly when the commissioners and the lawyers began shouting at each other.


Lawyer:Instead of pro bono, you’re not pro bonoing it.


Speaker 7:Yes, we are. Oh, my goodness. No, I’m sorry, we need to have-


Kevin Barnhardt:Motion overturned.


Speaker 7:-a response to that.


Kevin Barnhardt:Meeting’s adjourned.


Speaker 7:Here’s the evidence.


Al:Beyond Burke’s County, ICE is responsible for dealing with an influx of families and unaccompanied kids from Central America. Detention, is part of its strategy.


Speaker 8:It works, it was made as a deterrent.


Al:Joseph Lamise retired from ICE, he supervised the Burke Center when it first opened, more than a decade ago. He says officials want people in detention to tell relatives back home how hard it is to get into this country.


Speaker 8:We hope they get on the phone and say, “don’t call Honduras, they’re putting people in jail now”.


Al:Matt O’Brien, a former attorney for ICE, offers another reason for family detention. It keeps people in one location, while the federal government waives their asylum claims.


Speaker 9:If ICE has to go looking for people, it drastically removes the amount of people that it’s able to remove from the U.S. in a timely fashion.


Al:These days, Matt works for FAIR, lobbying to restrict all immigration to the U.S., some of FAIR’s leaders have been tied to white supremacists. When President Trump took office, he appointed FAIR’s executive director to a top post in U.S. customs and border protection. The Trump administration wants immigrant detention, but after years of court battles, this summer, federal judges ruled that ICE can’t automatically detain kids for so long. And if ICE wouldn’t free them, they could go before an immigration judge. This is what Lorena and Carlos had waited for, and it’s what landed them in that court hearing we heard at the beginning of the story.


Speaker 10:Alright, so I’ll ask again, both parties submit [inaudible 00:34:21]


Speaker 11:The Government does, yes.


Al:During detention, Carlos had received a special visa, just for kids, that creates a path for him to stay in the country. But there’s no guarantee his mom can stay. After he sifted through all the legal arguments, the judge invited Carlos to chime in.


Carlos:I want to call my mom.


Judge:Alright, so my ruling is as follows. I do find that this court has jurisdiction over [inaudible 00:34:55] and bothering this minor. I find that this respondent should be released on his own recognizance.


Al:The judge released them both.


Judge:That the court is going to release the mother to accompany the respondent.


Al:Lorena grabbed for a tissue.


Lorena:Thank you judge, thank you judge.


Judge:You’re very welcome.


Carlos:Thank you judge.


Speaker 14:Thank you.


Judge:You’re welcome, you’re welcome.


Al:They left the Burke’s center that same day. That night, they celebrated with pizza and Carne Asada at a Mexican restaurant. A couple of months after their release, I visited Lorena and Carlos where they live now, in Indianapolis.








Al:They share a two story house with a family they knew from Honduras. The family supports them, while Lorena waits for the government’s permission to work. She shows me their new room in the basement, joking, “it’s too messy for pictures”.


Lorena:No camera, no.


Al:There’s a mound of cartoon character blankets on the bed, a small refrigerator, and some dirty laundry cascading from a hamper. Most importantly though, she says, “there’s privacy, nobody else comes there”. Carlos hovers close to his mom, playing a game on a tablet or burrowing under the blanket and squealing. They share the same good humor, but also the lingering effects of detention.


Lorena:When I first left the detention center. I was still very confused. It was hard to put everything in order in my mind.


Al:Lorena lifts the leg of her pink jeans to reveal a black plastic ankle monitor.


Lorena:I feel good here, I really do. But I am always being watched.


Al:That keeps her from being truly free. Carlos acts like a goofball sometimes, but his mood swings are intense.


Lorena:I think it has to do with the detention. Before, he cried a lot, now it’s changed into anger.


Al:That’s not all they have to contend with. Lorena’s immigration status Is in limbo. She doesn’t have a good case for legal residents in this country. And, since the release, ICE has appealed to a higher court, arguing that expedited removal means they should be detained again.


Lorena:It makes me angry, we were locked up for 22 months and they’re still fighting for us not to be free.


Al:ICE agents could rearrest Lorena and Carlos at any time. And put them right back in the Burke’s center.


Speaker 15:That story, from WHYY’s Laura Benshoff, with Reveal producer, Laura Starechski. What happens next to Lorena and Carlos depends on what the courts decide, but ICE has stopped holding families at Burke’s for long stretches in the meantime. Many other people continue to arrive in the U.S., fleeing the kinds of circumstances this family did. We’ll meet one of them, when we come back.


You’re listening to Reveal, from the center from investigative reporting, and PRX.


Al:Hey guys, Al here to tell you about a new podcast I’m excited about, from the people who produced PBS’ investigative series, Frontline. It’s called Frontline Dispatch. It will expend that series’ tradition of tough, fair and deeply reported long-form journalism. Every episode will tel la different domestic or international story. Told by producers and reporters from around the globe. Subscribe now to Frontline Dispatch on Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Anna Sale:From the center from investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Anna Sale, in for Al Letson. This hour, we’re examining policies that affect millions of people, who live illegally in the United States.


This next story is about kids and teenagers who arrive in the U.S., alone. The law calls them, unaccompanied minors. In the last four years, almost 200,000 of them have shown up without their parents, at the southern bordrr of the U.S. Because they’re under 18, it’s not always immigration court that decides their fate. Sometimes it’s family court, where they face judges who normally handle custody battles, or local child abuse cases. Reporter Ashley Cleek, went to Florida and met some of those judges, who are deciding whether a child from far away has the right to stay in the U.S.


Ashley Creek:As the state appeals judge, Frank Shephard, cultivated a reputation for gruffness severi-


 Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 – 00:40:04]
 Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 – 00:54:20]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Speaker 1:Frank Shepherd cultivated a reputation for gruffness, severity, imperiousness.


Frank Sheperd:I play it as fun. Okay? You got to have a little fun in life.


Speaker 1:His rep is a means to an end. When he and I meet for an interview, the veteran judge carries a highlighted copy of the US Constitution. He’s in his 70s with white hair and bushy eyebrows. Shepherd retired from the bench last year. Now he works at a private law firm in Miami. He says he liked his old view from on high where he could peer down at attorneys below and-


Frank Sheperd:Look at the statutes, look at the rules, and apply them whether I agree with them or not.


Speaker 1:Shepherd heard a lot of cases and wrote a lot of opinions. I’m interested in a series of cases that reached his bench a couple of years ago, opinions he agreed with. They involved teenagers without travel documents, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The teens had streamed across the US border in the summers of 2014 and 2015. These kids sought protection from state courts so they could apply for a special visa. It was meant to protect minors whose parents had abandoned, abused, or neglected them in their home countries. When state court judges started denying these cases, the kids appealed to a higher court. Their cases ended up in front of Shepherd.


Speaker 3:Good morning, Your Honor.


Frank Sheperd:You are seeking … You are seeking-


Speaker 1:This is from archive video of a 2015 case in front of Florida’s Third District Court of Appeals. An immigration attorney presents her arguments before a three-judge panel framed by a backdrop of American flags. Shepherd, as chief judge, sits in the middle seat and does most of the talking. He needles the lawyer with rhetorical questions.


Frank Sheperd:There is this place up there in Washington, DC and there’s a big dome on it. It’s called the United States Congress. You can go up there and get a statute changed, couldn’t you?


Speaker 3:Yes. People can-


Frank Sheperd:But it’s a lot easier if you get a judge to do it. That’s the whole … It’s a lot less expensive [crosstalk 00:42:00].


Speaker 3:But we’re not asking you to change the law. We’re asking you to apply the law as written.


Frank Sheperd:I understand.


Speaker 1:The lawyer is asking this panel to overrule a lower court’s verdict, find her client has been abandoned, abused, or neglected, and declare him dependent on the state of Florida. Her 17-year-old client arrived in this country four years ago. When he was a baby, his dad abandoned him in Honduras. Now he lives with his mom in Florida. If Shepherd approves this case, the young man can take the court’s declaration and apply for this special visa. That’ll prevent his deportation to Honduras where he has no close family. The judges’ decision will also determine how lower courts should rule on these cases. Shepherd tells me most petitioners for these visas are not really kids. They’re almost adults.


Frank Sheperd:17 or 18-year-old might say “Well I’m not abused, abandoned, or neglected. My 75-year-old mother can no longer take care of me so I’m going to find my way over.” Whether that’s true or not is pretty hard to determine in El Salvador or Guatemala.


Speaker 1:The retired judge contends these cases based on circumstances he’s heard over and over clogged the courts and strained Florida’s social services agencies. Shepherd says state laws about protecting kids weren’t meant for this.


Frank Sheperd:They exist to protect and serve, provide benefits to the tens of thousands of people generally under the age of 18 in this state who have been truly abandoned, abused, or neglected. I said the statute does not exist to serve those with a different agenda.


Speaker 1:That agenda, he maintains, is not safety but immigration. Shepherd denied this case and four others in 2015 and 2016. He wrote that the abandonment happened too far in the past. The petitioners were nearly 18, and they weren’t being abused right now. From that point on when similar cases came before lower court judges, even some who had ruled in the kids’ favor would look to Shepherd’s rulings and turn them down. Lawyers were pretty shocked because they say that’s not how this law was supposed to work.


Angela:It didn’t get created because a bunch of kids fled in 2014 and 2015. It’s been the law since 1990.


Speaker 1:This is Angela [inaudible 00:44:29], a lawyer in Miami. Over the years, she’s helped a lot of young people apply for this special visa. She says the US doesn’t just hand them out to everyone.


Angela:We set up a set of requirements that I think are pretty heavy.


Speaker 1:To qualify, she says, applicants have to run a long bureaucratic relay race between state and federal courts. First, a kid has to ask the federal courts to hold off on deportation proceedings because he or she might qualify for this special visa. Then-


Angela:You go over to the state court. In different states, it’s different courts. Maybe you’re in the dependency court. Maybe it’s called the children’s court. Maybe it’s called the family court. Maybe it’s the probate court.


Speaker 1:You have to show them a document that explains what happened in your home country and why you’re afraid to go back. If the state judge approves the petition, the kid goes back to federal immigration authorities and says-


Angela:“Here’s my documentation.” That’s not even it. When you’re done with that, they then have to approve the documentation and make a decision on visas. It’s not just an easy wave in.


Speaker 1:Some years, a county court in Florida might handle two of these petitions at most. It wasn’t unusual for judges to approve them. Then came 2014. That year, more than 57000 immigrant kids showed up alone at the southern border. The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement placed thousands of them with relatives in Florida. When they petitioned for visas in courthouses throughout that state, judges started to wonder aloud “Why is this or any immigrant kid’s case in my court?”


Angela:You can tell they were uncomfortable. It was like asking them to do a job that they’re not supposed to be doing.


Speaker 1:Faced with a flood of new petitions, Florida judges began to deny them. They argued that the kids had no evidence or that the abuse happened too long ago or that a kid couldn’t be abandoned if he’d never met his father.


Angela:Judges really started to think about “Is this the purpose of this court?”


Speaker 1:Angela says they reasoned immigration is the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security.


Angela:The truth is the federal government has decided it is absolutely the purpose of the Miami court to protect abused, neglected, and abandoned children in front of it. Period.


Speaker 1:She says it shouldn’t matter if the kid’s from Gainesville or Guatemala. As the number of these petitions spiked in some Florida counties, so did judges’ denials. By 2016 following Shepherd’s decision, data shows that courts handled far fewer of these cases and granted fewer petitions. After the appeals court’s decision, Angela says, many judges refused to hear these cases. The feeling among lawyers was that-


Angela:If you bring a petition, it will be dismissed out of hand.


Speaker 1:More than a year later, the state supreme court overturned Shepherd’s ruling. Angela says while courts are hearing these kids’ cases again, judges still routinely deny their petitions. This is the legal and political situation a 17-year-old named [Isaias 00:47:31] walked into last December when he landed at his uncle’s house in Florida. Judges in that state had heard stories like his more times than they could count.


We’re calling Isaias by only his first name because he’s an immigrant minor in a difficult legal situation. Isaias is from Guatemala. He’s a bit over five feet tall with dimples and floppy black hair. When the US government deported gang members back to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, they took over towns like the one where Isaias lived. As he walked back and forth to school, he says, he ignored them. They mostly left him alone too until about a year ago when he turned 17. Isaias is still learning English so he’s more comfortable telling me this part in Spanish.


Isaias:[Spanish 00:48:14].


Speaker 6:They started to stop me and say that I would have to join up with them.


Speaker 1:The threats escalated. One gang member smashed his older sister’s foot with a rock. Isaias reported the attack, but the police did nothing so Isaias asked his mom what he should do.


Isaias:[Spanish 00:48:36].


Speaker 6:She had been to the US before so she told me “You can go there. There it’s different. There you will study. You will be the person that you want to be.”


Speaker 1:That sounded pretty good to Isaias. He wanted to finish high school, go to college, get a job. His mother said that was more likely to happen in the US so his family paid a man about $275 to show Isaias the way north. He rode buses through Mexico and swam to the US side of the Rio Grande. Shortly after he arrived, US border patrol agents picked up the teen and placed him in a detention facility. Eventually, authorities sent him to live with his mother’s brother.


There was more to this kid’s story than the threat of gang violence. In court documents, he describes how his dad’s alcoholism wrecked the family. About five years ago, Isaias’s dad walked out and didn’t return.


Angelina Castro:There are certain stories that you hear that just can’t be made up, and his was one of them.


Speaker 1:This is Isaias’s lawyer, Angelina Castro. She works on immigration cases along Florida’s east coast. Angelina says she knew judges were denying these petitions especially for kids like Isaias who were 17, but she also knew the juvenile protection visa was Isaias’s best option. She held her thumb and pointer finger like an inch apart and told him-


Angelina Castro:We have this much chance and this much time to do something with your case, but if you want to try it, I think it’s worth it. If it was me and if I had the money, I would do it.


Speaker 1:Isaias’s uncle fixes air conditioners. He doesn’t make a lot of money, but he’s paying a few thousand dollars for his nephew’s legal costs. Isaias understands that judges and some people listening to his story might not believe he deserves to stay in Florida. They’ve never been through what he has. He says that’s good.


Isaias:[Spanish 00:50:37].


Speaker 6:That’s good. They don’t need to go somewhere else, but I would ask them not to discriminate and to treat other people well.


Speaker 1:After we talk for more than an hour, Isaias admits how reluctant he was to tell his story.


Isaias:[Spanish 00:50:55].


Speaker 6:I told my uncle and I didn’t want to do it.


Speaker 1:He explains he doesn’t want anyone to confuse his story with the sad stories of thousands of other immigrant kids.


Isaias:[Spanish 00:51:07].


Speaker 6:What I mean by being important is like I don’t mean being the head of Apple. I want my dad and my mom to be proud of me.


Speaker 1:First though, there’s a court date to get past. He’s never stood before a judge. His lawyers are as nervous as he is. Because judges on the east coast of Florida habitually deny these petitions especially from people like Isaias who are almost 18, Angelina found an attorney in Tampa to take her client’s case.


On a muggy day in June, Isaias and his uncle drive three hours across the state for a two-minute hearing in family court. I joined them at the courthouse, but officials won’t let me into the hearing to record so I wait outside in the hallway. When they walk out, they look confused. His uncle says the judge asked him a few questions then added in Spanish [Spanish 00:52:09], “Go with God.” This judge signed Isaias’s petition. Now he can apply for the special visa. That signature doesn’t protect Isaias from deportation or afford him any rights. It just allows him to take the next step toward becoming a legal resident of Florida. It also means someone with clout in this country believes him.


Anna Sale:Other states are dealing with unaccompanied minors differently than Florida. Maryland has expanded the eligible age to 21 so more kids can apply for the juvenile protection visa. So has New York. Isaias and his lawyer applied for that visa just before he turned 18. It may take a year for them to hear back because the federal government is currently about two years behind on processing applications.


Our lead producers for this week’s show were Laura Starecheski and Fernanda Camarena. Cheryl Devall edited our show. Special thanks to reporter Andy Becker and editor Andy Donahue for their help. Our partner this week was WHYY in Philadelphia. Our lead sound designer and engineer is Jim Briggs. He had help this week from Claire Mullen, Catherine Raymondo and Cat [Shooknect 00:53:26]. Amy Pyle is our editor-in-chief. Susanne Reber is our executive editor and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Commorado 00:53:35] Lightning.


Reporting for the juvenile visa story was supported by freelance investigative reporters and editors and its virtual newsroom. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production for the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Anna Sale. Al Letson will be back next week.


 Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 – 00:54:20]

Byard Duncan was a reporter and producer for  engagement and collaborations for Reveal. He managed Reveal’s Reporting Networks, which provide more than 1,000 local journalists across the U.S. with resources and training to continue Reveal investigations in their communities. He also helped lead audience engagement initiatives around Reveal’s stories and assists local reporters in elevating their work to a national platform. In addition to Reveal, Duncan’s work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, The California Sunday Magazine and Columbia Journalism Review, among other outlets. He was part of Reveal’s Behind the Smiles project team, which was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2019. He is the recipient of two Edward R. Murrow Awards, a National Headliner Award, an Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, and two first-place awards for feature storytelling from the Society of Professional Journalists and Best of the West. Duncan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Cheryl Devall is a senior radio editor at Reveal. She is a native Californian with Louisiana roots from which storytelling runs deep. As an editor and correspondent, she's worked for the Daily World in Opelousas, Louisiana (the birthplace of zydeco music); Southern California Public Radio; National Public Radio; “Marketplace;” The Mercury News in San Jose, California; and the Chicago Tribune. Devall has shared in three Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards for coverage of AIDS and black America, the 1992 Los Angeles riots and North Carolina 40 years after the federal war on poverty. She's based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.