News Brief: Migrant Families Reunite, COVID-19 Cases, Opioid Immunity
NOEL KING, HOST:
Early in his presidency, Joe Biden signed an executive order that aimed to reunite kids who'd been separated from their parents at the border.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This week, he starts trying to get it done. Four families will be allowed to reunite in the United States. It's an initial step in trying to undo the family separation policy put in place by the Trump administration.
KING: NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. Good morning, Joel.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.
KING: Who are these four families? What do we know about them?
ROSE: Well, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was asked about that on a call with reporters. He did not give a lot of details about these families. He did say that they hailed originally from Mexico and Honduras and that some had been separated as far back as 2017, which is even before the Trump administration officially announced the zero-tolerance policy at the border that led to thousands of family separations. Here's Mayorkas.
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ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: They are children who were 3 years old at the time of separation. They are teenagers who have had to live without their parent during their most formative years. They are mothers who fled extremely dangerous situations in their home countries who remained in dangerous environments in Mexico, holding out hope to reunite with their children.
ROSE: Secretary Mayorkas said these families will now get humanitarian parole, which is a temporary permission to enter the country. Normally, it's given to relatives of people who are seriously ill, things like that. But Mayorkas said they're giving humanitarian parole on a case-by-case basis, which means that they might not do this for every family. And again, it is temporary.
KING: Really striking to hear him talk about 3-year-olds separated from their parents and compels me to ask, only four families - why not more?
ROSE: Well, many of these parents were deported years ago. They're not easy to find. And the Trump administration did not keep good records. Immigrant advocates think there are more than a thousand families that are still separated. So the Biden team has their work cut out for them. The president created this task force on family reunification shortly after taking office. And these are the first reunifications that it has accomplished during this administration. I've been covering this issue for years, and this feels like something of a milestone, not so much because of the numbers, which are small, but because it's the first real indication of what this administration may be willing to do for the remaining families that are still separated.
KING: If immigrant advocates say that they think more than a thousand families are still separated, what are they saying about this first step, small step, as you point out?
ROSE: Yeah. Well, they welcome the announcement, but at the same time, they expressed frustration at the slow pace of reunification so far. Lee Gelernt is with the ACLU, which fought the Trump administration in court for years over family separation and is now pushing the Biden administration to do more for these families.
LEE GELERNT: We are happy for these four families, of course, but we are not about to start celebrating. We know how much work is left to be done. We assume and hope the Biden administration recognizes that as well.
ROSE: Gelernt and the ACLU are in negotiations with the Biden administration over exactly what kind of relief these families will get in the long run. And it's not just permanent legal status that is under discussion but also, Gelernt says, support services, possibly financial compensation. But those negotiations are still ongoing, and it's not clear, you know, where they're going to land.
KING: What does the road ahead look like? What's the timing like on this?
ROSE: The head of the Biden task force says they will continue doing more family reunifications while they hammer out the details and that there are many more family reunifications to come. A slightly more cynical take on the timing would be that the administration is eager to announce some good news about immigration. They have been getting hammered by Republican politicians who blame Biden's policies for a surge of unauthorized migrants at the southern border. And they're also getting an earful from immigrant advocates who say the Biden administration needs to do more to change Trump-era immigration policies, particularly the public health order that is still in place at the border. Advocates say that's forcing families and adult migrants back into danger in Mexican border towns.
KING: NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you, Joel.
ROSE: You're welcome.
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KING: All right. The push, the rush, to vaccinate Americans is starting to pay off.
MARTIN: New COVID cases have dropped across the country by almost 30%. This is over the last couple of weeks. Los Angeles County, which at one point you'll remember had the worst rates in the country, reported zero coronavirus-related deaths this weekend, which is good news. Cases are declining in Michigan, too, but a new contagious variant from India has been identified in Michigan. And now the U.S. is going to suspend almost all travel from India.
KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us. Good morning, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: OK, so there are lots of variants in the U.S., but we see how bad things are in India. So how much of a concern is this variant?
AUBREY: Well, this variant adds to the list of variants. It's another one that is believed to be more contagious. And virologist Angela Rasmussen tells me she wouldn't be surprised to see it identified in other states beyond Michigan. She says there are already variants with similar mutations in the U.S.
ANGELA RASMUSSEN: We need to stay ahead of all the variants, not just the one from India as well as all the other variants that we know are already circulating here. We need to not only keep up vaccination, but we also need to be mindful of the measures that we need to continue to be taking to reduce our exposure risk.
AUBREY: Now, beginning tomorrow, the U.S. will restrict travel from India to the U.S. And given the rapid rise in cases in India, Rasmussen says restricting travel may help keep some coronavirus cases out of the U.S. But since the variant is already here, what's most important is getting people vaccinated, more people vaccinated as quickly as possible.
KING: And how is vaccination going? I've been reading those charts and watching the numbers kind of creep up. Big picture, where do we stand?
AUBREY: Yeah. Well, President Biden has pointed to the success so far. His goal of administering 200 million shots during the first 100 days of his administration was met. Right now, about 56% of adults in the U.S. have received at least one dose; 40% are fully vaccinated. But in recent days, the rate of vaccination has slowed down somewhat. Part of this is hesitancy, part of it is lack of convenience. Here's White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain speaking on CBS yesterday.
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RON KLAIN: We've got a lot of work left to do. We do want to make it easier and more convenient for the next group of people to get the shot.
AUBREY: It's really important to accelerate the pace of vaccinations again.
KING: How, though?
AUBREY: Well, instead of waiting for people to come to vaccination sites, increasingly vaccinators are going to the people. I spoke to Jaimie Meyer. She's an infectious disease doctor at Yale Medicine. She's been very involved in vaccine clinics there where they also have mobile clinics going out into communities to make it more convenient. She says for people who remain hesitant, it's important to take time to answer their questions. For instance, with the resumption of the Johnson & Johnson shot last week, some people have been asking, you know, should I take an aspirin before getting the J&J shot as a preventive measure against these rare blood clots? She tells them this is not a good idea.
JAIMIE MEYER: To have everyone take an aspirin on a daily basis to prevent an extraordinarily rare event, probably not helpful and, in fact, maybe harmful.
AUBREY: Another issue - some people skipping their second shot of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. And what she tells people is that, yes, you know, getting this first shot will give you lots of protection, but you need to come back because it is not clear how long this immunity will last. So it is important to get that second dose.
KING: OK. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks for your reporting, Allison.
AUBREY: Thank you, Noel.
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KING: Should members of the Sackler family who owned Purdue Pharma be protected from opioid-related lawsuits?
MARTIN: Many states are suing Purdue Pharma. Some partially blame the Sackler family for the opioid epidemic. But the family is negotiating a deal right now in federal bankruptcy court that would put a legal firewall around their billions of dollars. Critics, including 25 state attorneys general, say the Sacklers' plan would set a dangerous precedent.
KING: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann has been following this story. Good morning, Brian.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: What is the Sackler family offering in exchange for protection from lawsuits?
MANN: So the deal the members of the family have put on the table is to pay roughly $4.2 billion out of their private holdings. The Sacklers say that's a fair amount, in part because they maintain they did nothing wrong in all of this. Critics say because the Sacklers themselves aren't in bankruptcy and don't have to open their books in the way bankruptcy courts normally require, no one really knows if this is a good deal. You know, we don't know exactly what role they played in the opioid epidemic, and we don't know exactly how much liability they might have.
KING: I don't understand. How can the Sacklers use bankruptcy to protect themselves from lawsuits if they have not actually filed for bankruptcy?
MANN: Yeah, this is super complicated, so I want to use a chess metaphor here. Imagine you're playing a game of chess - right? - and you decide you're going to sacrifice one of your pieces in a way that helps you strategically keep all your other pieces, right? And that's sort of what the Sacklers have done here. They put Purdue Pharma, this private company that makes OxyContin, into bankruptcy. But the Sacklers still have a lot of other pieces. They have companies and real estate and cash and profits from OxyContin sales, all of that worth roughly $11 billion. And none of that stuff is in bankruptcy. So what the Sacklers are negotiating to do - and this is the controversial part - is have the bankruptcy court extend legal protections out from their one bankrupt company - that's Purdue Pharma - to cover all that other stuff. And I spoke about this with Maura Healey. She's attorney general for the state of Massachusetts.
MAURA HEALEY: The bankruptcy system should not be used to shield non-bankrupt billionaires. It would set a terrible precedent. If the Sacklers are allowed to use bankruptcy to escape the consequences of their actions, it will be a roadmap for other powerful, bad actors.
MANN: And one mystery here, Noel, is that we don't actually know who might be sheltered by these releases from opioid liability. The list of who might be protected in this way, that's being negotiated behind closed doors.
KING: A lot of secrecy here. And I imagine the 25 state attorneys general who oppose this settlement probably have problems with some of the secrecy.
MANN: Yeah. This is a big part of what they're pushing for is a lot more transparency. They called the Sackler plan unjust. That's their word. They say it should be completely scrapped outright. One of the things they say, Noel, which is interesting is they say that if the Sacklers win this immunity from lawsuits, it wouldn't just stop individuals from suing them. It would also stop state governments from using civil courts to hold people like the Sacklers accountable. They say that's a really dangerous precedent. The Justice Department also just filed a brief last week questioning whether the bankruptcy court can do this. So opposition appears to be growing. I should say, NPR reached out to Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers. They declined to comment.
KING: NPR's Brian Mann covers addiction. Thank you for joining us today, Brian.
MANN: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.