Return to Transcripts main page
THE SITUATION ROOM
Homeland Security Secretary to Address Issue of Family Separations at Border. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired June 18, 2018 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[17:00:23] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're following breaking news. We're standing by for a White House briefing, now delayed nearly four hours as the administration faces increasing pressure from Democrats and now many Republicans, as well, condemning the policy of separating undocumented children from their parents at the border.
Top administration officials are defending the actions, including the homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, who will be speaking at the White House briefing momentarily. We'll have live coverage.
President Trump continues to falsely blame Democrats for this new policy. The first lady, Melania Trump, is among those speaking out against it, and all four former first ladies have now also condemned what's happening along the border.
Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny. He's standing by for the briefing. Jeff, this is a significant moment we're about to see.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it certainly is. The White House has struggled, really, throughout the day and the last several days but certainly the last hours explaining and defending this immigration policy.
We heard the president earlier today essentially act as his best spokesperson, essentially defending and doubling down on what he believes is the right policy. But again, of course, blaming Democrats for this. Take a listen to what he said earlier today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility. It won't be.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZELENY: But in effect, that's exactly what has happened. Those searing images all throughout Father's Day weekend, certainly bringing this issue to life. But the new face of this policy who's trying to explain this policy,
perhaps, we'll be hearing from her shortly, at least scheduled to, is the secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen, who is going to be delivering that briefing as you said, Wolf.
But she is a prime example of the administration not having one single message. Take a listen to what she said earlier today speaking to sheriffs in New Orleans.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NIELSEN: We will not apologize for doing our job. We have sworn to do this job. This administration has a simple message. If you cross the border illegally, we will prosecute you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZELENY: So talking there about prosecuting you, but that is an entirely different message than what she was treating out on Sunday. Wolf, take a look at this tweet from the secretary. It said this. It says, "We do not have a policy of separating families at the border, period."
So certainly, a disconnect on several levels as criticism is coming in from across the board, from Republicans on Capitol Hill and Democrats of course. But it is the words of the former first ladies, particularly Laura Bush, you know, saying it's simply un-humane, inhumane and calling on leaders to do better about this.
But, Wolf, what has been transpiring here in the White House briefing room certainly speaks to the fact that the White House has struggled to answer these questions.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders initially scheduled to be here at 1:15, about four or so hours ago. That was delayed until about 3:30, the White House press briefing. Not entirely unusual, but certainly speaks to a sign that they are having meetings. And indeed, they were having meetings inside the West Wing here, I'm told, with the president and Secretary Nielsen, who flew back from New Orleans, and others.
Then the briefing was supposed to be at 4 p.m. That was delayed again until 5 p.m. So Wolf, a sign the administration trying to perhaps explain this, trying to perhaps move on beyond this.
But we have no sign here, no sense at all that the administration is backing away from its policy here. But even supporters of this president, Wolf, certainly raising questions, saying it is not a good look for the president. And we know the president, a big watcher of television, of course -- has seen these images, as well. I'm told he's not pleased. We'll see what the secretary says when she comes out -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. We see those pictures of those little kids crying along the border as their mothers --
BLITZER: -- are being questioned by police and many of them taken away, kids going to a separate location. It' clearly an awful, awful situation. Is there any -- any reason to believe the president might do what so many want him to do, simply pick up the phone and say, "No more"?
ZELENY: At this point, Wolf, we do not have any indication that they would be backing away from this policy. This has been the policy of this administration for a couple months or so.
The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, announced this zero-tolerance policy in April. It did not get all that much attention, but it certainly has gained steam since then.
We do not have an indication if they are going to change their policy. But indeed, we should point out this is something the president can do. Even though White House officials have repeatedly blamed Democrats for this, it is simply a Trump administration policy.
[17:05:11] It is true, of course, people on both sides have spent very little time trying to work through a broader immigration bill. The president has talked about immigration a lot, has not made it a priority in terms of actually trying to find, essentially, a bipartisan agreement here.
So we'll see what Secretary Nielsen said and if she would, indeed, back down from what she said earlier, that would be quite extraordinary, Wolf, but we do not know what the president is directing on this. He was involved in meetings here in the West Wing earlier this afternoon. This is something that certainly is not going away. They're getting an earful from everyone.
He is going to Capitol Hill tomorrow to talk to House Republicans about a broader immigration bill, of course it includes this, as well.
So Wolf, we will just have to wait and see what Secretary Nielsen says. Of course, she is the homeland security secretary. She worked here at the White House as a chief of staff, essentially for the chief of staff, John Kelly. So she's very familiar with, of course, the president.
But she and the president have been at odds over this policy and over immigration, as well. So we'll have to stay tuned to see exactly what she says, Wolf. But so far no indication, at least that we're hearing, that they 're going to change their tune on this policy -- Wolf.
BLITZER: I want you to stand by. We're obviously going to have live coverage of the homeland security secretary's briefing, which is supposed to have been -- begin fairly soon. We'll stand by for that.
Our panel of experts is also standing by. But I want to get more right now from a leading Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Senator, thank you so much for joining us. Let's talk a little bit
about this new policy of separating children from their mothers and fathers at the border. As you know, the president could easily change that. Comprehensive immigration reform very difficult, but this is a relatively easy fix. Senator.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: My wish, Wolf, is that we would interrupt this conversation between the two of us for Secretary Nielsen to come to this briefing and, literally in moments, reverse a policy that holds these children hostage.
They are used as pawns. I've been to the border. I've seen the cages where they've been held. And I've met with a number of the parents whose children have been taken away from them, and it is inhumane and immoral. And there is nothing -- and I repeat absolutely nothing in the law -- that requires it.
It is the result of the prosecution of people coming across the border, as Jeff just pointed out exactly right, coming across the border which requires them to be separated from their children. In an instant, in a phone call, in this press briefing the administration could reverse it.
BLITZER: And I may have to interrupt you, Senator -- I know you'll understand. If she does come out and begin this briefing, we'll go to that right away. But do you think there's a chance she may start off the briefing with that announcement that you want to hear, that so many others want to hear, that this policy is now being changed?
BLUMENTHAL: If she fails to announce that reversal of policy, I think she ought to have her resignation on the president's desk this evening. Because she knows it's wrong. In her heart, and in some of her public statements, in the inconsistencies of what she has said, she's indicated that she knows it's inhumane, immoral and illegal. So I would hope she would resign if that is not her announcement tonight.
But let's be very clear, Wolf: there is growing bipartisan unanimity on this cause. My Republican colleagues indicated over the weekend, in their public statements, that they have no defense for this policy. But they have failed to join the legislation that I have helped lead and every Democrat has joined. No Republicans have joined the legislation that would reverse this policy. It's time for them to stand up and use that moral compass -- I know they have it -- and show some moral backbone.
BLITZER: Do you believe it's possible she'll do that right at the beginning of this briefing, announce that they're walking away from this policy?
BLUMENTHAL: I would say realistically, probably she's there to defend it, not to reverse it. And that makes me very sad, genuinely sad as an American, because it so betrays American values. It recalls the worst period in American history during World War II, for example, when we put people of Japanese descent into separate encampments. We separated them from their communities. And in other times in our world history when families have been torn apart, as is happening right now.
But it's certainly -- it is very far from what we Americans would hope. I still think, though, given the president's statements this morning and her statements in New Orleans just a few hours ago, that the likelihood of their reversing the policy tonight is probably slim. I devoutly hope, as a Democrat but also as an American, that they do the right thing.
BLITZER: Do you believe, Senator, that this policy amounts to what some have suggested, in effect, is child abuse?
BLUMENTHAL: It is child abuse, plain and simple. You know, when we talk about fragmenting families -- and I was a state attorney general. I protected children against child abuse and neglect. In fact, thousands of cases each year. Children are traumatized by this kind of separation. In the life of a child, a few weeks is like three years for them because of the shortness of their life. And this kind of trauma will have lasting effects on many of them, tragic enduring harm for these children. We should have them in mind and put them first.
BLITZER: You said earlier that this policy in your words, quote, "reminds us of the cattle cars of Nazi Germany when children were separated from their parents."
I know you're very sensitive to this issue. You told me last year your father escaped Nazi Germany when he was only 17 years old. But tell us why you're drawing this comparison, the Holocaust and what's happening along the U.S.-Mexico border with these young kids and their parents right now.
BLUMENTHAL: Obviously, Wolf, there are some very, very critical differences, and I -- don't mean to compare the Trump administration to Nazi Germany by any means.
But the stories of these children being marched away from their families to cages and showers, literally told that they would be clean, given new clothes but separated from their families with no prospect of reunification, is reminiscent, in its insensitivity, to --
BLITZER: All right. Senator, I'm going to interrupt you. The secretary is going to be introduced by Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: -- laid out an immigration reform proposal that closes loopholes and provides the necessary resources to secure the border. Congress needs to fix our broken immigration system. To answer some of your questions on this topic, I've invited Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and the U.S. Custom and Border Protection commissioner, Kevin McAleenan, to the podium. And as always, I'll be back up afterwards to take questions on other news of the day. Thanks.
KIRSTJEN NIELSON, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Well, good afternoon. It is my pleasure to be here, because I would love to see if I can help explain some of what's going on and give you some of the facts. I know there have been a lot put out there, but hopefully, we can clarify some things today.
I just wanted to start by thanking the sheriffs of the United States. I had the privilege of speaking to them this morning at the National Sheriffs' Association conference. We are so thankful for their partnership at DHS and all they do to protect our communities, so I thank them.
So I want to provide you an update on the illegal crisis on our southern border and the effects [SIC] the -- efforts the administration is taking to solve this crisis and to stop the flood of illegal immigrants, drugs, contraband and crime coming across the border. So let's just start with a few numbers and facts.
So in the last three months, we have seen illegal immigration on our southern border exceed 50,000 people each month. Multiples over each month last year. Since this time last year, there has been a 325 percent increase in unaccompanied alien children and a 435 percent increase in family units entering the country illegally.
Over the last ten years, there has been a 1,700 percent increase in asylum claims, resulting in asylum backlog today in our country of 600,000 cases.
Since 2013, the United States has admitted more than half a million illegal immigrant minors and family units from Central America, most of whom today are at large in the United States.
At the same time, large criminal organizations such as MS-13 have violated our borders and gained a deadly foothold within the United States.
This entire crisis, just to be clear, is not new. It's been occurring and expanded over many decades. But currently, it is the exclusive product of loopholes in our federal immigration laws that prevent illegal immigrant minors and family members from being detained and removed to their home countries.
In other words, these loopholes create a functionally open border. Apprehension without detention and removal is not border security. We have repeatedly called on Congress to close these loopholes. I myself have met with as many members as have been willing to meet with me. I've testified seven times. I will continue to make myself available to ask that they work with us to solve this crisis.
[17:15:10] Yet the voices most loudly criticizing the enforcement of our current laws are those who policies created this crisis and whose policies perpetrate it. In particular, we need to reform three major loopholes. Let me quickly walk you through them.
First, we need to amend the 2008 Trafficking Victims Prevention Reauthorization Act, or TBPR, which is much easier to say. This law encourages families to put children in the hands of smugglers to bring them alone on this dangerous trek northward. And make no mistake -- we've talked about this before -- this trek is dangerous and deadly.
Second, we need to reform our asylum laws to end the systemic abuse of our asylum system and stop fraud. Right now, our asylum system fails to assist asylum seekers who legitimately need it. We are a country of compassion; we are a country of heart. We must fix this system so that those who truly need asylum can, in fact, receive it.
Third, we need to amend the Flores Settlement Agreement and recent expansions, which currently allow -- which would allow for family detention during the removal process. And we need Congress to fully fund our ability to hold families together through the immigration process.
Until these loopholes are closed by Congress, it is not possible, as a matter of law, to detain and remove whole family units who arrive illegally in the United States. Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it.
Until then, we will enforce every law we have on the books to defend the sovereignty and security of the United States. Those who criticize the enforcement of our laws have offered only one counter measure: open borders. The quick release of all illegal alien families and the decision not to enforce our laws. This policy would be disastrous. Its prime beneficiaries would be the smuggling organizations themselves, and the prime victims would be the children, who would be plunged into the smuggling machines in gang recruitment on the trip north.
There's a lot of misinformation about what DHS is and is not doing as it relates to families at the border. And I want to correct the record. Here are the facts.
First, this administration did not create a policy of separating families at the border. We have a statutory responsibility that we take seriously to protect alien children from human smuggling, trafficking and other criminal actions while enforcing our immigration laws. We have a long existing policy multiple administrations have followed that outline when we may take action to protect children.
We will separate those who claim to be a parent and child if we cannot determine a familiar or custodial relationship exists, for example, if there's no documentation to confirm the claimed relationship between an adult and a child. We do so if the parent is a national security, public or safety risk, including when there are criminal charges at issue, and it may not be appropriate to maintain the family in detention together.
We also separate a parent and child if the adult is suspected of human trafficking. There have been cases where minors have been used and trafficked by unrelated adults in an effort to avoid detention. And I'd stop here to say in the last five months, we have a 314 percent increase in adults and children arriving at the border, fraudulently claiming to be a family unit. This is obviously of concern.
And separation can occur when the parent is charged with human smuggling. Under those circumstances, we would detain the parent in an appropriate secure detention facility separate from the child.
What has changed is that we no longer exempt entire classes of people who break the law. Everyone is subject to prosecution. When DHS refers a case against a parent or legal guardian for prosecution, the parent or legal guardian will be placed into the U.S. Marshal Service custody for pretrial determination, pursuant to an order by a federal judge; and any accompanied child will be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services and will be reclassified as an unaccompanied alien child. That is in accordance with the TBPRA, a law that was passed by Congress and a following court order, neither of which are actions the Trump administration has taken.
And let's be clear: if an American were to commit a crime anywhere in the United States, they would go to jail, and they would be separated from their family. This is not a controversial idea.
Second, children in DHS and HHS custody are being well taken care of. The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement provides meals, medical care and educational services to these children. They are provided temporary shelter, and HHS works hard to find a parent, relative or foster home to care for these children.
Parents can still communicate with their children through phone calls and video conferencing. And a parent who is released from custody can be a sponsor and ask HHS to release the child back into their care.
Further, these minors could still apply for asylum and other protections under U.S. immigration law if eligible.
We take allegations of mistreatment seriously. And I want to stress this point. We investigate. We hold those accountable when and if it should occur. We have some of the highest detention standards in the country. Claiming these children and their parents are treated inhumanely is not true and completely disrespects the hard-working men and women at the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Third, parents who entered illegally are, by definition, criminals. Illegal entry is a crime, as determined by Congress. By entering our country illegally, often in dangerous circumstances, illegal immigrants have put their children at risk.
Fourth, CBP and ICE officers are properly trained to care for minors in their custody. DHS and HHS treats all individuals in its custody with dignity and respect and complies with all laws and policy. This reinforces and reiterates the need to consider the best interests of the children and mandates adherence to establish protocols to protect at-risk populations, to include standards for the transport and treatment of minors in DHS and HHS custody.
Additionally, all U.S. Border Patrol personnel in the southwest border are bilingual. Every last one of them. They are directed to clearly explain the relevant process to apprehended individuals and provide detainees with written documentation, in both Spanish and English, that lays out the process and appropriate phone numbers to contact.
And finally, DHS is not separating families legitimately seeking asylum at ports of entry. If an adult enters at a port of entry and claims asylum, they will not face prosecution for illegal entry. They have not committed a crime by coming to the port of entry.
As I mentioned, DHS does have a responsibility to protect minors and, in that case, as well, we will only separate the family if we cannot determine there is a familial relationship, if the child may be at risk with the parent or legal guardian, or if the parent or legal guardian is referred for prosecution. We have a duty to protect the American people, and it's one that I take very seriously.
Here is the bottom line. DHS is no longer ignoring the law. We are enforcing the law as they exist on the books. As long as illegal entry remains a criminal offense, DHS will not look the other way. DHS will faithfully execute the laws enacted by Congress, as we are sworn to do.
As I said earlier today, surely it is the beginning of the unraveling of democracy when the body who makes the laws, instead of changing them, tells the enforcement body not to enforce the law. I ask Congress to act this week so that we could secure our borders and uphold our humanitarian ideas. These two missions should not be pitted against each other. If we close the loopholes we can accomplish both.
Before I take questions, I just want to ask that, in your reporting, please consider the men and women of DHS who are dedicated law enforcement officers and who often put their lives at risk. Let's remember their sacrifice and commitment to this country. And with that, I'll take some questions.
JOHN ROBERTS, FOX NEWS: Secretary Nielsen, you talked about, DHS is no longer ignoring the law. You're calling on Congress to change the law. That is the big message here.
ROBERTS: Members of Congress on the Democratic side say that you are using children as a lever to try to get them to take legislative action. What do you say to that?
NIELSEN: I see it as a very cowardly response. It's clearly within their power to make the laws and change the laws. They should do so.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Have you seen the photos of children in cages? Have you heard the audio clip of these children wailing that just came out today?
NIELSEN: I have -- I have not seen something that came out today, but I have been to detention centers, and again, I would reference you to our standards. I would reference you to the care provided not just by the Department of Homeland Security, but by the Department of Health and Human Services when they get to HHS.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is that the image of country you that want out there, the children -- NIELSEN: The image that I want of this country is an immigration
system that secures our borders and upholds our humanitarian ideals. Congress needs to fix it.
[17:25:03] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want to give you a chance to respond to Laura Bush. In an op-ed, she says it's cruel. She supports an application of the law. Even the current first lady, Melania Trump, has said we should be a nation of laws, and we should do so with heart.
Do you have anything you want to tell them? Do you believe they're misunderstanding the situation? Or do you believe there's any component of this policy, which as you outlined, other administrations have done but you're using it in a way that is more -- intense and creates the separation issue?
NIELSEN: What my response would be is calling attention to this matter is important. This is a very serious issue that has resulted after years and years of Congress not taking action. So I would thank them both for their comments. I would thank them both for their concerns. I share their concerns, but Congress is the one that needs to fix this.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The policy is not, by your definition, in any way cruel?
NIELSEN: It's not a policy. Our policy at DHS is to do what we're sworn to do, which is to enforce the law.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm following up on Megan's (ph) question there. Former first lady Laura Bush compared this to Japanese internment during World War II, one of the darkest days in the nation's history. Do you believe that the effect of this policy, so not the law, but the effect of it on separating children from families in those instances, is moral? Is ethical, is American?
NIELSEN: What I believe is that we should exercise our democratic rights as Americans and fix the problem. It's a problem; let's fix it.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: How is this not child abuse?
NIELSEN: Be more specific, please. Enforcing the law?
ZELENY: What Cecilia was talking about and the sounds that we've seen from these big box stores, the Wal-Marts, the other stores. When you see this, how is this not specifically child abuse for these innocent children who are, indeed, being separated from their parents? NIELSEN: So I want to be couple -- clear on a couple of other things.
The vast majority, vast, vast majority of children who are in the care of HHS right now, 10,000 of the 12,000, were sent here alone by their parents. That's when they were separated. So somehow we've conflated everything. But there's two separate issues. Ten thousand of those currently in custody were sent by their parents with strangers to undertake a completely dangerous and deadly travel alone.
We now care for them. We have high standards. We give them meals. We give them education. We give them medical care. There's videos. There's TVs. I visited the detention centers myself, that would be my answer to that question.
ZELENY: If I could follow up. Of the hundreds that are not included in there, and you said 10,000 but for the hundreds that we have seen, perhaps up to 2,000, is there -- are there any examples of child abuse, you believe? And how could this not be child abuse for the people who are taken from their parents? Not the ones who are sent here with their parents' blessing with a smuggler. The people who are taken from their parents.
NIELSEN: Unfortunately, I'm not in any position to deal with, you know, hearsay stories. If someone has a specific allegation, as I always do when I testify, I ask that they provide that information to the Department of Homeland Security. We will look into it. Of course, we do not want any situation where a child is not completely adequately taken care of.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A couple of questions. One, why is the government only releasing images of the boys who are being held? Where are the girls? Where are the young toddlers?
NIELSEN: I don't know. I'm not familiar with those particular images so I'd have to --
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you know where the girls are? Do you know where the toddlers are?
NIELSEN: The children -- we have children in DHS care both, but as you know, most of the children after 72 hours are transferred to HHS. So I don't know what pictures you're referencing. But I'd have to refer you to HHS.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- the boys, but we just haven't seen any of the girls or any of the young toddlers; and you're saying that they are being well cared for. So how can you make that claim if you don't know where they are?
NIELSEN: It's not that I don't know where they are. I'm saying that the vast majority of children are held by Health and Human Services. We transfer them after 72 hours. I don't know what pictures you're speaking about. But perhaps there --
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This has been released to the public. They've been aired all over national television.
NIELSEN: OK. By DHS or by HHS?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: By HHS.
NIELSEN: OK. So let's find out from HHS. I don't think there's any -- anything other than just the pictures --
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- your department have been aired all over national television throughout the day, the kids who are being held in the cages. We've only seen the boys.
NIELSEN: I will look into that. I'm not aware that there's another picture.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let me ask, Secretary, let me just follow up very quickly, because you continue to insist that this is something that Congress can change and yet --
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is something that was enacted after the attorney general announced the zero-tolerance policy. This never happened before he announced --
NIELSEN: That's actually not true. The last administration -- the Obama administration, the Bush administration all separated families at the border --
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
NIELSEN: They absolutely did. Their rate was less than ours, but they absolutely did do this. This is not new.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Unaccompanied minors, there's no doubt about that.
NIELSEN: They separated families.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Separating kids at this rate from their parents is something new and specific to this administration. Once the attorney general announced the zero-tolerance policy. So why doesn't the president pick up the phone and change the policy? He said he hates it.
NIELSEN: I think what the president is trying to do is trying to find a long-term fix. So why don't we have Congress change the laws? To change -- Congress can fix this tomorrow.
NIELSEN: Yes, I think you were next, right?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sorry. President Trump has had a lot to say the last few days about immigration, but he's offered no compassion to the families that are being separated at the border. Do you know why that is?
And why won't he simply pause your department's enforcement of this administration policy until Congress reaches that long-term fix, so that these families can be reunited?
NIELSEN: He has been attempting to work with Congress since he's been in office. He's made it very clear that we will enforce the laws of the United States as long as this administration is here. As part of that, he has continually reached out to Congress to fix this. And I think what you've seen him do in the last few days is that, is continue to tell Congress, "Please work with us."
The system is broken. The only people that benefit from the system right now are the smugglers, the traffickers, those who are peddling drugs, and terrorists. So let's fix the system.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- a question: Does he feel any compassion for the families that are being separated? He's talked about the parents being possible criminals. He has blamed it on Democrats. He's offered no words of compassion.
NIELSEN: I think he has said in tweets that he would like Congress to act to end the underlying laws that require the separation -- yes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Madam Secretary -- Madam Secretary, it seems like a couple days ago, both the president and in your tweets, that the main posture or point was to say that this is not the administration's policy. But it seems like in the last couple of -- well, today that the message is a little bit different. It's to say, "Well, this is our policy but it's our policy, because either we believe it's a deterrent or we don't believe we have the resources to move families entirely."
And I'm just wondering. I want to make sure we get the reporting right. Which of those is -- is the most precise way to describe how the administration feels? And given the blowback by a number of Republicans as well as Democrats, are you considering rethinking this based on feedback, or is this the administration's position going forward, period, paragraph?
NIELSEN: Those laws prohibit us from detaining families while they go through prosecution for illegally entering the border and while they go through prosecutions for immigration proceedings. If we close the loopholes, we can keep the families together, which is what they did in the last administration until a court ruled that we can no longer do that.
After 20 days, we have to release both unaccompanied children and accompanied children, which means that we cannot detain families together. The only option is to not enforce the law at all.
Yes. Yes. APRIL RYAN, JOURNALIST: OK. So going back to these two questions from Kristen (ph) and Margaret, you said that you want Congress to close loopholes. With that, you also said that you want to make this work. Now, are these kids being used as pawns for a wall? Many people are asking that. And Democrats are saying this is your discretion. And there is no law that says that this White House can separate parents from their children.
NIELSEN: The kids are being used by [SIC] pawns by the smugglers and the traffickers. Again, let's just pause to think about this statistic. Three hundred fourteen percent increase in adults showing up with kids that are not a family unit. Those are traffickers. Those are smugglers. That is MS-13. Those are criminals. Those are abusers.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let her finish.
NIELSEN: Thank you. All I'm trying to say is closing that loophole will enable us to detain families together throughout the proceeding, as they've done in previous administrations.
RYAN: Madam Secretary, can you definitively say, are the children being used as pawns against -- for a wall? Can you say yes or no to that? Yes or no to that?
NIELSEN: The children are not being used as a pawn. We are trying to protect the children, which is why I'm asking Congress to act.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- as the legal framework for the decision that the administration has made. Are what we're saying: the pictures, the audio, the stories, are they an intended consequence of the administration's decision making? Or an unintended consequence?
NIELSEN: I think that they reflect the focus of those who post such pictures and narratives. The narratives we don't see are the narratives of the crime, of the opioids, of the smugglers, of people who are killed by gang members. Of American children who are recuted [SIC] -- recruited and then, when they lose the drugs, they're Tased and beaten. So we don't have a balanced view of what's happening.
[17:35:06] But what's happening at the border is the border is being overrun by those who have no right to cross it. As I've said before, if you're seeking asylum, go to a port of entry. You do not need to break the law of the United States to seek asylum.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People are being turned away from ports of entries, Madam Secretary!
NIELSEN: That actually is incorrect. We have limited resources. We have multiple missions at CBP, and what we do is, based on the very high standards we have, if we do not have enough bed space, if we do not have enough medical personnel on staff, if we do not have enough caretakers on staff, then we will tell people that come to the border they need to come back. We are not turning them away. We are saying, "We want to take care of
you in the right way. Right now, we do not have the resources at this particular moment in time. Come back."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much. Are you intending for this to play out as it is playing out? Are you intending for parents to be separated from their children? Are you intending to send a message?
NIELSEN: I -- I find that offensive. No. Because why would I ever create a policy that purposely does that?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Perhaps as a deterrent.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) says it was a deterrent.
NIELSEN: The way that it works --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) said that it was a deterrent.
NIELSEN: That's not the question that you asked me. But the answer is, it's a law passed by the United States Congress. Rather than fixing the law, Congress is asking those of us who enforce the law to turn our backs on the law and not enforce the law. It's not an answer. The answer is to fix the laws.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will the administration refrain from its current policy if Congress were to pass something that's close to what you want? Or will it continue to require the separation of parents from their children until the president gets exactly what he wants?
NIELSEN: If Congress closes the loopholes, some of which -- many of which are closed in the two bills that we hope are taken up this week by the House, then they close the loopholes, and the families will stay together throughout the proceedings. Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you view the policy is a deterrent? Do you believe the policy is a deterrent?
SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Thank you, Secretary Nielsen. I'll jump right in and go to other questions, news of the day. Steven.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president said he would talk with North Korean leader Kim yesterday. Do you know if that happened?
SANDERS: I know the president has spoken with a number of administration officials that are working on the details following the North Korean summit. And we'll keep you posted on those details. But I'm not aware of a specific call between the two leaders at this time. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a report that the United States and South
Korea have agreed to suspend joint military drills in August. Is that real?
SANDERS: I'm sorry. The last part of the question?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That they agreed to suspend joint military drills in August. Are you aware of this?
SANDERS: Those conversations are ongoing. And at this point, as long as the North Koreans continue to act in good faith, as we saw in Singapore, then we expect those things to be on pause at this point.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sarah, has the president discussed the family separation policy with the first lady in light of her statement yesterday? And does he have any plans to come out and address the American people, maybe take some questions about how his administration's enforcing the law?
SANDERS: The president did take a number of questions, as I'm sure you're all aware, on Friday, in which what he actually said very closely mirrored what the first lady said. He said he hates seeing this. He's called on Congress, not just Friday but for months, he's called on Democrats in Congress to work with him; "Let's fix this problem."
The president isn't trying to kick the can down the road. He's actually trying to work with Congress to get real solutions and to fix the problem. And that's what we're doing.
Jeff, and I'll take your question, since you and your network accuse me of not wanting to be here. So I'll be glad to pass that question onto you now.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Why did you decide to have Secretary Nielsen answer questions instead of you?
SANDERS: I'm here answering questions, as well, but I thought it was important for the secretary, and one of the primary experts on this process and the things that are going on, to come out here and have the chance to speak to you and for you guys to be able to ask questions directly of her and the leaders in this administration. But I'm standing here in front of you.
ZELENY: I have a real question, though. Would the president sign a bill that did not --
SANDERS: I wondered if you were going to throw it away.
ZELENY: Would the president sign a bill that did not include border funding if it did, indeed, close this loophole that Secretary Nielsen talked about? Would he sign that specific bill, or does he require an entire bill with that $25 billion -- in it?
[17:40:09] SANDERS: We've laid out what we would like to see on a number of different occasions. There are currently two bills that are in process in the House. The president supports both of those pieces of legislation that we have voiced support for the details in those.
The president doesn't just want to see a Band-Aid put on this. He wants us to actually fix our immigration system. He's tired of administrations claiming that they want to help the system and then just kicking the can down the road. He wants to actually fix the problems; he wants to secure our border. This isn't just something we can tinker with. We have to actually fix the entire system, and he's committed to doing that.
ZELENY: He would require border --
SANDERS: We have laid out what we want to see in legislation. The president wants to fix the system, and we're committed to doing, and we hope Congress will actually do their parts. Democrats have got to stop playing political games and actually come to the table and get real about solving the problem.
JOHN ROBERTS, FOX NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Thanks. On the I.G. report and the hearings in Congress with Mr. Horowitz and Director Wray, the president tweeted several times today and yesterday that the Mueller investigation continues to be, quote, a "witch hunt." He said on Friday that, after reviewing the I.G. report, it shows that there's no evidence of collusion.
His own FBI director today said that the Mueller -- that Mueller is not on a witch hunt and that the report doesn't speak to the special counsel investigation. How is there that disconnect there between what the president believes another branch of his administration is doing?
SANDERS: The president has been clear. He was, obviously, very involved in his campaign, and he's laid out a number of times that there was no collusion. And he strongly feels this is a witch hunt.
The president has also said that the I.G. report clearly calls into question the credibility of James Comey and many other senior FBI investigators who have been involved in the Russia investigation, and that report validates the claims that he's made repeatedly.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, Sarah.
The governor of Massachusetts, who's a Republican, today reversed course and ordered the National Guard not to send assets or personnel to the southwest border, because he said the actions of the federal government are resulting in the inhumane treatment of children. Would you comment on that, and have you seen any other impact on border operations from this whole situation? SANDERS: I haven't seen his comments specifically, but I would tell
him that he should call every member of Congress, particularly those in his own state, and ask them to fix the laws.
There's only one body here that gets to create legislation, and it's Congress. Our job is to enforce it, and we would like to see Congress fix it. That's why the president has repeatedly called on them to work with him to do just that.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What was the president's reaction to Laura Bush's piece in "The Washington Post"?
SANDERS: I'm sorry. What was the last part of your question?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What was the president's reaction to Laura Bush's piece in "The Washington Post"?
SANDERS: I didn't speak directly with him about that, but I'm happy to address the concerns and echo what Secretary Nielsen said.
Look, we share the concern. The president himself said that he doesn't like this process, but once again, it's Congress' job to change the law. We're calling on them to do exactly that. And frankly, this law was actually signed into effect in 2008 under her husband's leadership, not under this administration.
We're not the ones responsible for creating this problem. We've inherited it. But we're actually the first administration stepping up and trying to fix it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Sarah.
I have here in my hand figures from the German Ministry of the Interior under Minister Seehofer which says that crime has gone down 5.1 percent in Germany. In fact, it's the lowest rate in a quarter- century in Germany. Violent crime down 2.4 percent. Burglary down 23 percent. And theft down 11.8 percent.
Where did the president get the statement that crime was way up in Germany under the Merkel plan for admitting refugees?
SANDERS: I'm not aware of the report that you're referencing, but I'd be happy to check into it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's from the German Ministry of the Interior.
SANDERS: I heard that part, but I haven't seen it. But I would be happy to check into it and circle back.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks a lot, Sarah. I read the first lady's statement that was put out, and she seems very troubled by this zero -- this zero-tolerance policy. Is there any sort of daylight between the president and the first lady on this issue?
SANDERS: I think we've made it abundantly clear that the daylight exists between Democrats in Congress and their ability to change this law.
The president himself said that he doesn't -- he hates these images. He hates this process, and that's why he's asked for it to be fixed. I feel like we keep ignoring the fact that the president isn't the one that creates the law, but it's Congress's job to create the law.
And the president has already laid out and gladly stated a number of times publicly that he would sign legislation that fixes these loopholes and fixes our immigration system.
I think that people should be begging and banging down the doors of Congress and asking them to join with the president instead of fighting him.
Instead of constantly criticizing, why aren't they offering solutions? You have people like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer who come out and complain and attack.
It's because they have no message. They have no solutions. We've laid out a solution, and we'd like to see them work with us to put it in place.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Also critical on this particular policy, besides the people you mentioned on the Democratic side, are a number of Republicans and also some very prominent members of some of the President's base, Evangelical Christians.
Do you know if the President has heard from those members of his base, the Evangelicals in particular, or had discussions with the President about this particular policy? And can you sort of fill us in on discussions the President may have had in that regard?
SANDERS: I think any evangelical that -- or any church, for that matter, that feels strongly they should open up their doors and help facilitate some of these individuals, I think that's their calling.
That's the mission of the church, and they should certainly fulfill that. If they want to fix the immigration system, then they should call their members of Congress and ask them to join with us to do that.
(CROSSTALK) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you know --
SANDERS: I'm sorry, Steve. Go on.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is some confusion about this space force that the President announced today. Did he actually sign anything? Does he believe that this could be done without the approval of Congress? The Air Force appears opposed to it. Where is the support for this coming from, besides the President?
SANDERS: The President's asked the Department of Defense to start the process. We're in the beginning stages of it, and we're going to work with the Department of Defense and the other relevant parties to put it into place.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sarah, if the administration is, as it says, not using the children as pawns in this situation, then why not just have Congress pass legislation that narrowly deals with this family separation issue and sign it, and then deal with the other aspects of the immigration system that the President wants overhauled with at a different time?
SANDERS: Once again, we want to fix the entire system. We don't want to just tinker with it. The President is tired of watching people kick it down the road and not take responsibility and not fix the problems that we have.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just feel like, Sarah, that he would like to see all of these other things changed about the immigration system, but we're dealing with this particular situation right now. Why not --
SANDERS: We're dealing with a number of situations. That's not the only one. We have people flooding over the borders.
Look, the President wants people to come to this country, but we want them to come legally and through the right process. And that's what we're asking. We want to secure the border.
There have been a number of individuals that are permanently separated from their families due to the illegal aliens that have come across this border and murdered and killed American citizens. Where is the outrage over that separation?
We want to fix the whole thing. We don't want to just tinker with one part of it. This is a broken system, and we've got to quit ignoring it. Just ignoring a rule doesn't fix it, and that's what this administration is actually trying to do.
I'm going to take one last question. Sawyer (ph)?
(CROSSTALK) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Sarah. So State Secretary Pompeo came out today, and he said that, in exchange for denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, that the United States had committed to updating the armistice agreement that's currently in place.
Can you confirm that the President did make this commitment to Kim Jong-un, and what exactly does updating the armistice mean? Does it put the future of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula in question? And just any more information you could update us on in that regard.
SANDERS: We're finalizing the details of what the process will look like. Certainly, I would confirm Secretary Pompeo's comments and would refer you to the State Department and the Department of Defense who will be putting those details out and together.
Thanks so much, guys. Have a great day.
BLITZER: There she is, Sarah Sanders, the White House Press Secretary walking off that podium over there earlier. Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of Homeland Security.
Both of them strongly defending this very, very controversial policy of going ahead and separating young kids, children, from their parents as they cross into the United States. About 2,000 kids now separated from their moms and dads over the past couple of months alone.
Kirstjen Nielsen saying that they will -- this administration will no longer, in her words, exempt entire categories. We are no longer ignoring the law, she said. We will not look the other way. Strongly defending this very, very controversial policy.
Chris Cillizza, what was your reaction?
CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS EDITOR-AT-LARGE: That was hard to watch, honestly, Wolf. From a political perspective, I think it was a disaster, particularly the Kirstjen Nielsen portion of it. But let's remember the stakes here.
[17:50:00] You know, we're talking about kids, including kids that are similar to the age of kids I have, being separated from my -- their parents. I can't even imagine my kid being separated from me in a foreign place.
And I think we get so deep into the ideology of, well, this is how we want it and he ran on this and it's going to be like this. There are so many things she said that just aren't accurate.
It's not a law. He can change it if he wants to. He can pick up the phone and say, we instituted a zero tolerance policy, we're going back on that until we can figure out something that is more humane. I'm still committed to ensuring we don't allow undocumented immigrants in this country, but this is not the right solution right now. I won't let it go any further. And the other thing, and then I will stop -- the thing that I think
from -- as a reporter is most offensive, is Kirstjen Nielsen saying that she couldn't comment on the images of kids in cages and kids crying because she hadn't seen them and that was just what the story the media wants to tell.
I don't know what that means. These are -- some of these pictures are government provided in their attempt to say, see, everything looks just fine down there.
You cannot stick your hand in the sand and say my ideological position is this, and I'm going to stick to it. These policies have real-world consequences, and the real-world consequences -- the kids being brought over here are not willfully breaking the law. They are 6 years old. My son no more knows -- my son is 5. He no more knows what breaking the law means.
And we cannot penalize these little kids for this. The idea that you would hide behind rhetoric and untruths, candidly, Wolf, I -- you know, I mean, really, this is appalling. I don't know what else to call it.
BLITZER: You know, and it's really awful, the pictures we have seen of these 2 or 3-year-old, 4-year-old little kids crying as their mothers are being handcuffed, taken away.
She said, the Secretary of Homeland Security, parents who enter the United States illegally, that is a crime. As a result, they're criminals. You see some of the pictures up on the screen right now. They're criminals, and as a result, you could take their kids and send them off someplace else.
SABRINA SIDDIQUI, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE GUARDIAN: This is a humanitarian crisis. I don't think it's an understatement to say that. And it's a crisis of the President's own making.
They keep pointing to this idea that they have to enforce the existing law when no previous administration interpreted it existing immigration law to mean that you have to separate these children from their family.
You saw Secretary Nielsen try to conflate the issue by pointing to unaccompanied minors when it's their own statistics that show 2,000 children are being separated from their parents at the border.
And, frankly, they are also separating some children from their families when they are showing up at legal points of entry. It's not just those who are crossing the border illegally. So that bears repeating, too.
I think the most telling moment for me, though, was when Sarah Sanders was asked, point blank, why would you not support standalone legislation? If you're saying that this needs a fix, even though it doesn't -- the President could change it tomorrow. But if you're saying it needs a fix, why not support standalone legislation in Congress to reverse this policy? And she insisted that they want to look at a broader immigration
package that would include, as we know, funding for the President's border wall, restricting legal immigration, ending the Visa Lottery Program.
So it's clear that the -- this administration is willing to use these children as political pawns to gain broader concessions on immigration, and they have to own that. They're clearly not willing to do so.
CILLIZZA: Donald Trump has tweeted, literally, almost that exact same thing. Democrats should come to the table if they want this problem solved. Now, Kirstjen Nielsen said we're not using them as pawns. What would you call that?
BLITZER: Yes. And many of his aides have said the same thing.
CILLIZZA: I mean --
BLITZER: They want to use this as pressure on the Democrats, they say, to go ahead and accept what he wants, $25 billion for a border wall. Among other issues, as well.
BLITZER: I'm anxious to get your reaction.
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, what stood out to me was when Kirstjen Nielsen said we have a duty to protect the American people.
Wolf, let me ask, what kind of threat does a 5-year-old, a 6-year-old, a 10-year-old have to the American public? I mean, for her to conflate the two and raise it as a security threat, that was a bit stunning.
And if you think about the longer-term ramifications, what place does the U.S. have -- not that it's the number one priority of this administration, but what place does the U.S. have right now when meeting with foreign leaders, when meeting with Kim Jong-un, when meeting with Vladimir Putin, to even raise the idea of human rights violations when this is happening in our own backyard, when it's something that the President himself can undo, and yet, now, it's being called law?
It's not law. It's a policy that he can change.
GOLODRYGA: And there's a reason why immigration reform is difficult. If it was easy, it would have been handled by previous presidents. And we've had two previous administrations toy with this idea and call it too inhumane, too heartless.
[17:54:55] And you look at Laura Bush. How many times did we hear from her when she was the first lady of the United States when it came to policy issues? This is a matter that crosses party lines and needs to be addressed immediately. This is not America.
BLITZER: Anne Milgram, you're the former New Jersey Attorney General, our legal analyst right now. You heard the Secretary of Homeland Security say their hands are tied. What does the law actually say?
ANNE MILGRAM, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL OF NEW JERSEY: Yes, Wolf, nothing could be farther from the truth. The law does not require this. And I think everything she said actually confirmed that this is a policy, and it is a choice that they are making.
When you think about the law she was talking about, it's a 2008 law related to unaccompanied minors, basically, who were -- kids who were being smuggled in. That's not the situation we're talking about here. We are talking about kids who are coming in with their parents, with their families, who are being ripped from their families.
And I'll say, what we do know that the law in every single state in America protects is children. And it protects children and the question that courts always ask is, what is in the best interest of children?
We cannot violate that and we cannot endanger children. And yet everything we see from the science we know about the harm that can be done to kids is that that is exactly what the American government is doing now.
And what I can't figure out is why none of my colleagues who, today, sit in attorney general seats, why no one is challenging the administration on the legal aspects of this. Because it is completely a falsehood to say that it is legally required. It is the exact opposite.
BLITZER: Excellent points. Everybody stand by. We have a lot more on the breaking news. We're going to have more on this very growing opposition to separating families at the border, about taking these little kids away from their moms and dads. Does President Trump know just how unpopular this policy is?
Plus, a former CIA chief's controversial condemnation of what's happening at the border. General Michael Hayden, he is standing by. We'll discuss this and more.
Lots of news. We'll be right back.