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White House proposal to stem flow of migrant children aims to tackle root causes

July 8, 2014 at 6:07 PM EDT
Detainees are escorted to an area to make phone calls as hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Arizona.  Photo by Ross D. Franklin-Pool/Getty Images
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GWEN IFILL: President Obama is requesting $3.7 billion in emergency funds from Congress to deal with the influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border. About half the money would be used on care for the more than 50,000 children who have arrived in the U.S. since October, mostly from Central America. The rest would be spent on Border Patrol agents, additional immigration judges, surveillance and new detention facilities.

We are joined now by Cecilia Munoz, director of the president’s Domestic Policy Council.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Could you tell us what in the president’s proposal would slow the flow of immigrants?

CECILIA MUNOZ, White House Domestic Policy Council: Well, there are several things.

First of all, there are number of provisions and resources for our partner countries in Central America to make sure that we’re dealing with the root causes of the migration, that we’re disrupting the smuggling networks, which is an incredibly important factor in this migration, and that we’re actually helping them create centers for the process of repatriation and reintegration of those folks who are going to be returned.

So, that is a really critical element of what we’re seeing here. And then we’re also, as you mentioned, surging things like immigration judges, asylum officers to make sure we can honor any humanitarian claims from children or others that come forward and might qualify for some form of relief.

But then for others who are not going to qualify for relief, we want to make sure that we can get them answers to their cases expeditiously and then they will be removed to their home countries in cooperation with their home countries. But the most important thing here is making sure that we’re focusing on the smuggling networks, that we’re dealing with the root causes and that we’re effectively able to manage the migration that has already reached our border.

GWEN IFILL: What would you say are the root causes?

CECILIA MUNOZ: Well, it’s a combination of violence and poverty in Central America, but especially smuggling networks that are actively marketing to people the falsehood that if they spend money to get their children — to put their children in the hands of traffickers and make this incredibly dangerous journey that when then get to the United States, they will be allowed — they will be given permission to stay permanently.

This is incorrect. And it is obviously influencing a decision that parents are making which puts their children in really very grave danger. So we’re working very hard to disrupt those networks, but also to get accurate information to people who might be making this decision to put their kids in this kind of danger.

GWEN IFILL: You must be aware that immigration reform advocates, because you have met with them, think this may be a little too tough, that in fact you’re punishing the children who are trying to escape and should be treated as refugees instead.

CECILIA MUNOZ: Well, we’re making it as clear as possible that those who have humanitarian claims, we’re going to do the best possible job of hearing those claims, making sure that we provide relief when it’s available under the law to those who meet the standard.

But it should also be clear that the standard for asylum or other kinds of humanitarian claims is very high. And we think, just given the history of these kinds of claims, that a majority of the folks who are coming forward who are arriving in the U.S. are unlikely to qualify for relief, and so with our responsibility under the law to make sure that we return folks, but understanding especially in the case of children that we will need to be doing this in a way which doesn’t put them in any further danger, that we collaborate with their home countries to make sure that this is done properly.

So, we’re approaching this as an urgent humanitarian situation. But it’s also true that we have to make it clear to any parent who might be making the decision put their child in the hands of traffickers and smugglers that this is an incredibly dangerous thing to do and they shouldn’t do it based on the false premise that they’re guaranteed status in the United States, because that’s simply not true.

GWEN IFILL: Speaking of collaboration, the president when he travels to Texas tomorrow will be meeting with Governor Rick Perry. What is it he is hoping to share with him or too — what kind of support is he hoping to get from him for this proposal?

CECILIA MUNOZ: Well, he’s invited the governor to join him in meeting with advocates and faith leaders that are working to do something about the problem, that are working to help open facilities for some of these children in Texas.

So he’s hoping for a bipartisan collaboration, not only with the governor, but with the Congress. The president, as you mentioned, sent up a request for emergency funds to make sure that we have the resources to deal with this situation effectively and expeditiously. We have people on both sides of the aisle talking about how serious this problem is. We’re hoping for cooperation on both sides of the aisle in addressing it.

GWEN IFILL: Should the president be going to the border to see the conditions for himself?

CECILIA MUNOZ: Well, the president is focused, as he has been throughout this situation, on making sure that the government all across the federal government is doing everything that we can to deal with the situation effectively.

So that includes making sure that the various agencies of the federal government, from DHS to DOJ to HHS and the Defense Department, are working collaboratively to provide shelter for these kids, to surge our resources, to make sure we can handle these cases expeditiously, to make sure we’re doing what we ought to be doing to disrupt these smuggling networks.

The president is focused on what’s going to be most effective in dealing with a problem and he’s urging others to do the same.

GWEN IFILL: Speaker Boehner has suggested that the president should be empowering the National Guard to go to the border to help with border security. What do you say to that?

CECILIA MUNOZ: Well, it’s not clear what kind of role the National Guard would play.

The issue is not that we are not apprehending people. We are in fact apprehending large numbers of people. The issue is having the facilities to manage those cases properly, to make sure that children are receiving the appropriate kinds of care, and to make sure that we have the capacity to surge judicial resources, asylum officers to make sure we’re hearing humanitarian claims where they’re being made.

Those are not things that the National Guard can do. And we have already got the Defense Department engaged. They have provided so far three facilities where we’re housing children.

GWEN IFILL: How do you know that these children who you are now basically saying will have to go home once they have gone through this judicial process, how do you know they’re — how will you be able to tell that they’re not being trafficked, in fact, that they’re not refugees?

CECILIA MUNOZ: So this is a process which already exists.

You have to make sure that there are — that there’s representation for the kids, which has been a challenge. We in fact announced a new justice corps where we’re trying to recruit volunteer lawyers to help provide representation for these kids.

We have trained asylum officers, trained officers that are part of the DHS system whose job it is to make sure that they can have these kinds of conversations in a way which elicits the information which might highlight this kind of humanitarian claim. We need more of those officers. That’s part of what was — part of the immigration reform that the president has been pushing forward.

We have a backlogged immigration court system. The immigration reform included more resources, so that we can bring more judges to these kinds of cases. So, we’re going to surge the resources that we have got to make sure that we’re dealing with these new entrants at the border, but we need some cooperation in Congress to make sure that we can bring additional resources to bear to do this more effectively.

GWEN IFILL: Cecilia Munoz, director of the president’s Domestic Policy Council, thank you very much.

CECILIA MUNOZ: Thank you.