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Transcript: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen's Full Interview With NPR

NPR Southwest Correspondent John Burnett talks to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Here's the full transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for clarity:

John Burnett: Madam Secretary, there's this growing — I've covered immigration for a while now — there is a growing resistance and a pushback to the DHS's immigration enforcement. Just to name a few: More than 300 sanctuary cities, jurisdictions and counting, advocates counseling immigrants not to open the door for ICE agents. Even some local governments like Nashville and Memphis that are taking steps to shield people from driving without a license so they don't get fed into the criminal justice system and get deported. Presidents Obama and Bush deported way more people than President Trump, but it seems like it's under this administration that you all are getting the most blowback. Why do you think that is?

Kirstjen Nielsen: I think the short answer is the culture, environment has changed, and there is an underlying misunderstanding of the threat. So we often look at it as a culture, as an immigration issue, but it's not. It's a border security issue; it's a national security issue. So our duty is to make sure that Americans have awareness of the threat that these loopholes and gaps in border security pose.

But it does seem like that some of the grassroots resistance is really shrill around the country. Does that affect you? Does it bother you that these policies that you've dedicated yourself to have aroused so many people?

It does because at the end of the day, the men and women of DHS who work hard every day and often put their lives at risk have taken oaths to uphold the law, and that's what they're trying to do. So the shrillness and the pushback in terms of us enforcing the law is inappropriate and unacceptable. If somebody wants a different law, they should go to Congress and get a different law passed. But we took an oath and we will uphold the laws of this country.

I want to ask about zero tolerance and family separation which was much in the news earlier this week. Just, first some clarifications. Will families be separated, who cross the border illegally, or may families be separated if they cross the border illegally?

First of all, the law says if you cross between the ports of entry, you are entering without inspection and that is a crime. First time is a misdemeanor. After that it's a felony. And then it goes on from there. So that hasn't changed, that's the underlying law. Our policy has not changed in that if you break the law, we will refer you for prosecution. What that means, however, is if you are single adult, if you are part of a family, if you are pregnant, if you have any other condition, you're an adult and you break the law, we will refer you. Operationally what that means is we will have to separate your family. That's no different than what we do every day in every part of the United States when an adult of a family commits a crime. If you as a parent break into a house, you will be incarcerated by police and thereby separated from your family. We're doing the same thing at the border.

So will you refer for prosecution immigrants who cross, who come to the port of entries and ask for asylum?

What we will do is, we will put them through the regular process. As you know, we have laws in this country and will process them accordingly. Unless they have committed an underlying crime, unless they are a terrorist, unless they have multiple illegal entries — what we'll do is give them, essentially, a 'Notice to Appear' equivalent. They'll pass through their initial interview with USCIS, and then they'll go to an immigration judge.

So you won't refer for prosecution those who present themselves at a port of entry and don't swim the river?

They have not broken any laws.

So what's to prevent another Central American caravan from showing up and lining up at the port of entry, which they did in San Diego, and one by one coming across and saying, 'We want asylum,' which, as you know, your critics on the right have been upset about that?

Well, you know, I think with asylum, unfortunately, it's a big loophole because in our country the threshold is quite low. So what it has done are the smugglers and the traffickers recognize that and encourage anyone coming to our borders to seek asylum. At the end of the day, only 20 percent are actually given asylum by judges, meaning 80 percent of the people coming here are either fraudulently claiming it, which is breaking the law, or they do not have a case that fits within our statutory framework. So the deterrent here is helping people understand only 20 percent of you will actually be granted asylum. The other 80 percent will be removed from the country.

There was a case that got a lot of press earlier this year, you probably heard about it. November 1 a Congolese woman identified as Ms. L and her 6-year-old daughter presented themselves at the San Diego Port of Entry, asked for asylum. Four days later she was taken from her mother and she was taken to a juvenile shelter in Chicago. Her mother was detained around San Diego in an ICE facility. This went on for four months. Finally, the ACLU filed a lawsuit and they were reunited. First of all, was that case mishandled when the mother the child were separated for four months?

I think what the case demonstrates is, in some cases, our ability to assure ourselves of that real custodial relationship. In this case that there was a familiar relationship is difficult and it involves a voluntary submission. In that case, of DNA.

Do you wish that you all had handled that case differently?

I think we can always do better. We're learning a lot from it. As you know it's an active lawsuit. So unfortunately I can't get into all the things we're doing to improve the system. But absolutely. It's not our intent to separate people one day longer than is necessary to prove that there is in fact a custodial relationship.

I knowTheNew Yorkerhad an opinion piece this morning and they called family separation at the border a state of terror. Is this meant to act as a deterrent to families in Central America? This is what's going to happen to you?

What it's meant to do is, do our jobs. I mean, that would be like saying that when people commit crimes in this country, and they're put in jail and separated from their family, that somehow that's terror. In the United States we call that law enforcement. We call that protecting our communities and our children. That's what we're doing.

But separating families isn't — it's an extreme measure.

Well it's not. Again, we do it every day in every part of the country. If you have a family and you commit a crime, the police do not not put you in jail because you have a family. They prosecute you and they incarcerate you. Illegal aliens should not get just different rights because they happen to be illegal aliens.

Secretary, why more troops to the border? Seven hundred more National Guard, more helicopters...

It's a force multiplier. It lets CBP [Customs and Border Protection] do what they do best, gets more badges right on the border so that they can enforce the law and they can interdict and apprehend those who are illegally crossing. It also helps us to process people faster at the ports of entry.

And is DHS under you going to deport everyone in the country illegally? Are you going to expand the priorities even more so, that eventually you're going to round up all 11 million?

I don't think anyone would pretend that's possible. So what we are doing is we prioritize. We will deport as many as resources allow. We do that in a structured targeted way. We go after those from a policy position that we feel is a threat to the United States and our communities. So, as you know, we focus on the criminal element, for example, and certainly anybody who's known or suspected terrorists. But we do not have the current resources today to deport all 11 million, for example, in the next year. So we'll continue to work with Congress. I would say, though, that those who come here now, we are focused on those who come here most recently are those who will be deported more quickly in order to try to stem that tide. If I can apprehend people, but I can't remove them, that's not border security. So we need to continue to work with Congress to close those loopholes and my authorities.

Temporary Protected Status. You all have canceled TPS for nearly 300,000 Hondurans, Salvadorans and Haitians — who have almost as many U.S. born children. We read that these career diplomats from the region had cabled the State Department, asked you not to do this, that these countries were still wracked by violence and poverty and didn't have the capacity to absorb all these deportees. Why did you all take that action?

I was required to take that action by the law. Pure and simple. The statute is very clear. If the conditions that originated from the designating event no longer exist, the statute says the secretary shall terminate. To pretend that conditions continue to exist from a hurricane 20 years ago is a fiction. Does that mean there isn't difficulty in that country? No. Does that mean we shouldn't take care of TPS? No. But does that mean that I have any authority to continue to grant them temporary status? It does not.

But there was some discretion. Some of these have gone on, you know, for 15 plus years, but you all decided to draw a line in this in your tenure.

Yeah, we decided to enforce the law. We don't make immigration law. Congress does. Congress needs to do their job. I've said under oath, and I'm happy to say to anyone who will listen. Congress should pass a law to give permanent status to those who've had Temporary Protected Status. I am not going to bow to political pressure, however, to break the law to do Congress's job. They need to do it.

My editor e-mailed this to me while we were waiting. It has to do with this adjustment of status and immigrants who are here requesting immigrant visas. They have to establish they are not going to become a public charge. And this was a proposal that you have signed — is that not — using or receiving, or are likely to use, public benefits. Why are you in favor of that? Is that going to be the law?

It is the law. So actually what we're doing is we're trying to enforce the law in a transparent way and do so through public comment, so that everybody understands how we are enforcing the law but that actually is in the Immigration and Nationalization Act and has been for decades.

It says that that immigrants can't receive public benefits.

It says they cannot — we cannot allow them to immigrate to the United States if we believe they will immediately become a public charge. So what we're trying to do through the rule-making is make it clear what does that mean and get the comment from the public on what that should mean.

It seems like every DHS secretary, since the creation of the department in 2003, have all put their stamp on this office. There are reports that the president's senior adviser Stephen Miller, that your colleague — I don't know if I can call him your mentor — General John Kelly, that they both wield great influence over policy here. Is your department independent from the White House?

Well it is. We have operational control. So we have the men and women who execute the laws each day. What we do know is this takes a partnership and there are many departments involved in this. As you know, the Department of Justice plays a big role. Health and Human Services plays a big role. State Department. Department of Defense. So one of the roles of the White House is to help coordinate the inner agency, and General Kelly and Stephen Miller help us do that.

But a couple of examples. The cancellation of TPS status — I understand General Kelly — and I'll ask him this afternoon about it — he was very insistent about the Hondurans; also the two press releases that went out in February when there was pending legislation in Congress. I guess this gives the impression that this office is going to be a mouthpiece for the ideologues and policymakers in the White House?

What I would say is I'm a proud member of this administration. So part of my job is to implement the president's agenda. So in that case, I hope that I can continue to work with all senior advisers at the White House to ensure that we are all doing all that we can to do what the American people have elected this president to do. But no, I don't think DHS could ever be a mouthpiece for anyone. Our 240,000 people who work here and work every day and do what they do.

Tell me something about the border wall. How many miles are you all requesting now?

So we'll have we have that 864 in existence. As you know some of those need some work. We've recently seen pictures of border wall that is obvious, on its face, needs some work to actually provide the benefit that we're looking for. So in the next couple of years, with the money that we'll have, we'll have about 100 additional miles and then with [20]19 we hope to get even more. 150 in and maybe 100 more with 19. So we'll continue to work with Congress. Some of that is it's all new wall. Some of it's replacing existing barrier and actually making it a wall. And then, in some cases, we don't have wall at all. So it will be actually putting barrier in place where none exists.

So for FY19 you're asking for 100 new miles?

Well, actually FY19 will be about 200 if we get all of the funding and then 150 if we use all of 17 and 18.

This administration wants more than that. I mean, with every new budget year, you're going to ask for more miles of the wall?

Yes. I mean, there's a limit. So as we've all said, there's no need to have wall from sea to shining sea. But where are the men and women in their great experience in protecting us believe that we need a wall, wall system. We are working to get that infrastructure in place as part of that system. As you know, we also need the technology that goes with it - the access road, the trained personnel, situational awareness, so that we have the full system to enforce operational control of the border.

I do know that 70 percent of all the ICE arrests were people convicted of or charged with crimes. Syracuse University did some analysis of that, and came up with the fact that during the president's first year, the largest increase in deportations was immigrants who commit traffic violations. Next largest crimes were people accused of public order crimes — disorderly conduct, failure to appear in court. There was a state senator in Texas who called this the broken taillight that leads to deportation system of enforcement. Are these the priorities that you all want? These low level crimes like this?

First I always feel compelled to make the larger point here, which is if you have broken the law, we will prosecute you. Come through a port of entry if you have a legitimate claim. Do not break the law by coming between ports of entry. Having said that, as we discussed, we do have a prioritization scheme. Running a red light is not top of the scheme. But unfortunately it was sanctuary cities and other situations when we target an illegal immigrant, if we encounter other illegal immigrants who are here illegally and have broken other laws, we will no longer exempt them from prosecution. So that's why those numbers are such. It was — previous administrations have made different calls on that. But for us, we're not exempting anyone. If you break the law, you break the law. You will be referred for prosecution.

And some of these arrests have been outside of sensitive locations: schools, hospitals. They've been highly controversial. Is there, and I know that some members of Congress have asked you all to reinforce the sensitive locations memo. Are you all going to continue making these arrests close to these sensitive locations?

You know, actually I just — I disregard it out of hand that statement. It's just simply not true. So, when this is raised, I continually ask members of Congress for time and place and location. I'll look into it. No one ever has any facts. We did have one situation where a member of Congress blew up a picture of a CBP car in a church parking lot. That officer was attending the funeral of his brother who had been killed in the line of duty. So these stories are false. They're offensive. We do not arrest in sensitive locations.

And then lastly what do you say to people who say that through the rhetoric as well as the enforcement policies of this department, that it's anti-immigrant?

It's not. We are the most generous country in the world when it comes to immigration. We welcome 1.1 million a year. We are working for example to strengthen the H-2A agriculture visa process, as you know, we continue to give more and more visas in that case so that workers can come legally and work within our farming industry. What we're trying to accomplish is an immigration system that is not broken. So we want people to come here legally. There are lots of ways to do that. We want them to contribute to society, and we do not want people to come here to intend to do us harm and break our laws. But we welcome law abiding immigrants every day of the year.

Thanks, Secretary Nielsen.

Thank you. Pleasure.

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