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Sen. Flake: Obama’s proposal would allow migrant children to ‘disappear into the population’

July 8, 2014 at 6:14 PM EST
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., joins Gwen Ifill to share his take on President Obama’s $3.7 billion proposal to tackle the wave of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border. He criticizes the proposal for allocating too much money to the Department of Health and Human Services, and discusses changes to an anti-smuggling law and the prospect for immigration reform in a divided House.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: For another point of view, we turn now to Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senator Flake, thank you for joining us.

You signed a letter recently, late last month, in which you urged the government not to give special treatment to these children coming across the borders. Does the president’s proposal, his request today, does it satisfy your concerns?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE, R, Ariz.: Well, no, it doesn’t.

But let me first say I wrote a letter with Senator McCain and then Senator Feinstein, and I wrote a letter encouraging the president and the administration to make clear that those who are coming now, these unaccompanied minors, would be unlikely to qualify for deferred action or any legislation proposed by Congress.

And I applaud the president for making that statement and his administration. The problem I see with this — with this proposal before Congress is, the bulk of the money, $1.8 billion of it, will go to the Department of Health and Human Services. That’s not money that goes to deport anyone or to provide border enforcement.

That’s money to actually settle these children with families or a guardian somewhere in the country. And so at best it’s a very, very mixed message, and at worst, it’s telling the cartels and the human smugglers that the same situation we have now is going to continue and to keep the kids coming.

GWEN IFILL: Let me get this correct. You believe that that money is going to keep the children in the country, rather than to care for them while they’re here before they are returned?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Well, if you look at what HHS, their role when these kids are handed off from the Border Patrol, their role is to actually place those children in the care of a guardian or a family member.

And then what the records shows is that they’re told to appear later in court, where their case will be adjudicated. But 90 percent of them, 90 percent, do not then show up in court later. And so what you’re really saying to the cartels and the smugglers is that the same situation is going to continue.

Now, the administration makes the point that that’s a requirement of the current law. That’s why we need to change the current law. The anti-smuggling law passed in 2008 says that children from Central America, if you’re in a noncontiguous country, then we — have to be treated differently. And you have to have a day in court with a judge, rather than be handled administratively, like we do with kids from Mexico or from Canada.

GWEN IFILL: And if I recall correctly, in 2007, when were you in the House, you actually opposed the original law.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: I did. I should say I opposed it on budget reasons. I didn’t foresee this happening.

But, certainly, we ought to change it now, and I think the president initially said that it did need to be changed, and now perhaps has backed off a little. But we have got to change that, because, until we do, as long as these kids are placed with HHS, HHS does no due diligence.

It’s not their job, they will tell you, to determine who they’re placing these kids with. Once they’re placed somewhere in the country, 90 percent of them don’t show up for a court date. And so the message is clear, very clear, to the cartels and human smugglers and the families to go ahead and continue to send your kids here, because, although we can say until we’re blue in the face most of them won’t qualify for programs here in the U.S. to have some kind of treatment, they will get treatment or they will simply disappear into the population.

GWEN IFILL: So you don’t believe that — in any way that children should be treated differently?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Well, what I believe is that children, whether they’re from Mexico or whether they’re from Honduras or El Salvador, should be treated the same. The problem is, it’s a loophole in the law. We didn’t foresee what would happen when this anti-smuggling law was passed in 2008.

And people very wise to this have taken advantage of this law to get kids into the country and then, knowing that they have to appear in court, and the court system is so backed up — and that I should point out that the money here for judges to expedite the court process is very minimal.

It’s just I think about $50 million, compared to $1.8 billion to HHS to actually place these kids in homes. So it’s — the message is actually quite bad here.

GWEN IFILL: You are among the members of the Senate who has suggested there should be some sort of broader immigration reform, yet you have also said that there will be no appetite for that in the House, that it will be next to zero chance of that happening this year. Given that, do you think there’s a chance at all for the House and the Senate to agree on even the legislative fix that you’re suggesting here?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Well, I hope so. And I’m glad you made that point.

I am a member of the gang of eight. I believe in immigration reform. I agree with the president that we need it. And part of the problem here is we will never get there as long as this crisis persists. I do think there’s appetite in the House and in the Senate on a bipartisan basis to actually fix this problem.

And I should mention, in 2005, we had a big problem with the so-called OTMs, or other than Mexicans, coming, and largely from Brazil. They found — Brazilians, it’s a tight-knit community. They found that they could exploit our law, and we had a large number coming. And so there was a program called Texas Hold ‘Em actually where they caught them all, didn’t release them, and within 30 days, the number of Brazilians coming actually dropped by 50 percent.

And, within 60 days, it dropped by 90 percent. And so we need to treat this the same way.

GWEN IFILL: I guess my — pardon me. My question was whether Congress has the will to do anything like that right now.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: I do think so. This is such a crisis.

And keep in mind, this is a horrible humanitarian crisis. These kids are being put in the hands of smugglers that don’t have their best interests at heart. But I can tell you that we won’t stem the tide until people in Honduras and El Salvador and Guatemala actually see a plane coming back with children on it, and those parents say, I spent $5,000 to send that child to the States, and now they’re coming back.

That’s when you will stem the tide. That’s when you will do something that is good on a humanitarian basis. And so we have got to change that law that is allowing the loophole that allows these cartels to exploit these children.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, thank you for joining us.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Thank you.