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Border wall is not ‘who we are,’ says Rep. Thompson

What’s the impact for national security when those who work to keep us safe aren’t getting paid? Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, says DHHS and TSA employees are still doing their jobs. He tells Judy Woodruff that a physical wall would conflict with American values and that it’s “unfortunate” the president is relying on fear to make policy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We will continue to document the ways the government shutdown is taking place and how its impact is being felt across the country.

    Now let's look at national security.

    This evening, I spoke with Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. He's the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

    I started by asking whether the country is less safe as a result of the shutdown.

  • Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.:

    Well, you know, the men and women who perform their job every day do a good job, but I think it's a bit much to ask them to work and not be paid.

    I have talked to them. I have talked to the TSA administrator, a number of other individuals, and they have all assured me that the standards will continue to be met.

    But I know it's a problem if mortgages are due, if utility bills are due. It's a problem when you don't have the money to do it. A lot of our employees at DHS work from check to check because some of them, like our TSOs at airports, are some of the lowest paid federal employees.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the arguments the administration is making — and I know you have heard it because they have said it over and over again — came yesterday again from the secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen.

    She said, once again, the large number of criminals who came across the border last year, the smuggling that has taken place, the emphasis they are placing on there being a security crisis in this country, unless there is some kind of physical border along — or physical wall along — a barrier along the southern border.

  • Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.:

    Well, I have heard the secretary and other people talk about that.

    But when you look at the data in terms of people crossing the border, the data doesn't support what she's saying. When you look at the numbers that they are pushing out, the numbers they are pushing out, as far as we can tell, are inaccurate.

    I wish the secretary would give us real numbers. I have CBP numbers that say only six people were caught, not 4,000. But if you're trying to scare people, then you will come up with numbers that can't be verified.

    So, it's unfortunate that employees and the numbers are caught up in this notion of trying to scare people into supporting a border wall.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you believe, Chairman Thompson, that Speaker Pelosi was right yesterday when she talked to the president in that White House meeting?

    He asked her, if even the government were reopened, after 30 days, would she be willing to sit down and talk about money for border security, a border wall, and she said no. Was that the right answer?

  • Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.:

    Well, I think border security, the speaker has always supported border security.

    It's the border wall. Those of us who work in this space every day, we understand security is important. But the lowest point that we see is a wall. So what we are saying to the president, set the wall aside. Let's talk about border security, and we will get there.

    But if you are saying, I'm not going to do any engagement unless you give me a wall, then Speaker Pelosi was right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there any sentiment among Democrats that Democrats should be prepared to give something to give a little on this?

    Our reporter Lisa Desjardins just reported a few minutes ago that some moderate Democrats are saying Democrats need to put something on the table now.

  • Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.:

    Well, and I think you will see that over the next few days.

    If you look at the history of funding border security, we have always done that. We have put moneys in for fencing. We put money in for additional surveillance equipment. We have supported adding more Custom and Border Protection employees.

    So we are doing everything that comes to us that makes sense. It's just, a physical wall in the United States of America is not who we are. It's not our value system. If we can see people 500, 600 miles away, why would we need to put a wall when they get here?

    All we have to do is move assets that we have available to us to the area where we see them coming. We do it now. All we have to do is just continue it.

    I have been engaging the tech community. They are telling me that they are developing modern technology that will help us identify those vulnerabilities. I would like for us to go in that direction. The physical wall sends a bad impression for the United States of America, our value system.

    We encourage people to come. If they are being persecuted, they have a right to come and declare that. And we will work on asylum processing.

    But just to say to people we don't want you because you don't look like me is not who we are as a country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very quickly, finally, it is looking as if the president is seriously considering declaring a national emergency in order to get this wall built and the government reopened. What effect would that have on all this?

  • Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.:

    Well, again, we're working on a manufactured crisis.

    This national emergency is just expanding that manufactured crisis. It's unfortunate that Department of Defense assets will continue to be used to fight this manufactured crisis.

    I would hope the president doesn't do it. But I'm convinced, if he decides to do it, then we do have a system, a judicial system in this country, and I am convinced that it will be tested.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Chairman Bennie Thompson, newly elected chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, thank you very much.

  • Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.:

    Thank you for having me.

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