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How Obama’s DHS head sees the detention of migrants at the U.S. border

Amid the immense controversy over immigration detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border, supporters of the Trump administration say the facilities and their condition represent a continuation of policies that existed under former President Obama. Judy Woodruff talks to former Department of Homeland Security Sec. Jeh Johnson about whether conditions have deteriorated and how we should respond.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nearly 100,000 undocumented immigrants were detained at the U.S. southern border last month. But it is what happens after they are held in U.S. custody that has come under scrutiny in recent weeks.

    The federal Department of Homeland Security and members of Congress have released accounts of the overcrowding inside detention facilities. Supporters of the Trump administration's policies say they are a continuation simply of the Obama years.

    Jeh Johnson served as the secretary of homeland security during the Obama administration. And he joins me now.

    Jeh Johnson, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Jeh Johnson:

    Thanks for having me, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, these conditions, if you look at any of the pictures, you read any of the accounts there, they are — they look unhealthy. They look — well, look at this.

    I mean, these are just some news pictures that have been released. It looks unsanitary, and worse.

    What should be done with these individuals?

  • Jeh Johnson:

    Well, first, the reality for these migrants, for these people from Central America is worse. It's worse in Central America.

    And the reality of the current conditions are terrible. Any time you have border infrastructure for a population of X, and you face X times four, it is bound to be tragic.

    First and foremost, Judy, we have to continue the investment Congress started in 2016 in eradicating the poverty and violence in Central America, the push fact ares that motivate these families to come to the United States in the first place.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do I understand you to say — you said, it is worse where they are coming from. So President Trump has said the situation there is worse than what they have here.

  • Jeh Johnson:

    Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras is the most violent place on our planet right now, exacerbated by the drought, the hit to the coffee market there.

    And I will never forget 2014, when we had a similar crisis, though not as big. Someone said to me, you cannot padlock a door on a burning building.

    And these families are making the basic human calculation to flee a burning building, to seek a better life in the United States. So we have to continue to invest in eradicating the poverty and violence. Congress started in 2016 with an investment of $750 million.

    And I'm told that the initial investment we already made, while a drop in the bucket, was beginning to make a difference. So the spending that aid, which President Trump has done, is the exact wrong thing to do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And…

  • Jeh Johnson:

    There are always additional investments we can make in border security, Judy, but so long as these underlying push factors exist — and I owned this problem for three years.

    Illegal migration is principally motivated by the push factors that motivate somebody to leave their circumstances in the first place.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I think everybody — most people recognize that and understand that a lot of help is needed. But we also know that's not going to get fixed quickly, in the meantime, many, many thousands of people coming into this country.

  • Jeh Johnson:

    Sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about the Trump administration charge that things were just as bad under your administration?

    We even have a picture here which they have spoken about of you touring one of these facilities in 2014. You just mentioned that. There's a sign there that says, males, I guess, age 16 to 18.

  • Jeh Johnson:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Was it is bad under President Obama as it is now?

  • Jeh Johnson:

    Well, certainly not as bad because we simply are not — we were not seeing then the numbers we're seeing now.

    And any time you see a situation like this, you try to anticipate it and stay ahead of the curve. That photograph is from 2014. That was a temporary facility in Arizona when we had the spike in the families and the kids.

    And under the law, when DHS apprehends an unaccompanied child, we are required within 72 hours to transfer that child to HHS. In the meantime, you simply have to have someplace to put them. You can't release them to the streets of El Paso or McAllen, Texas.

    And so that particular facility, like others, was set up to have some place to hold on to them until they can be processed for a period of 72 hours.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you're saying this was a temporary situation and different from what is happening now?

  • Jeh Johnson:

    Yes, the backlog now is — because of the numbers, is terrible. And so you're bound to see these tragic situations.

    And so it's up to those who are responsible for this to try to anticipate it and to, frankly, try our best to treat people in a fair and humane way. And so we in the Obama administration, we didn't always have it perfect. And we were criticized.

    But I would like to think that we tried to be sensitive. Every time I would go to South Texas, for example, I would always visit these families, these kids. And I would talk to the kids about why they came here and what their circumstances are, so that I could see the problem up close and personal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have talked about — in fact, you wrote an opinion piece over the weekend in which you talked about it's time for straight talk from America's political leaders on — from both political parties.

  • Jeh Johnson:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the things you refer to was, frankly, what Democratic presidential candidates, some of them, are advocating. And that is either decriminalizing people who cross the border and commit no other crime, in other words, saying it would be OK, it would be legal for them to stay in the United States.

    You're saying that's not realistic.

  • Jeh Johnson:

    Judy, I'm afraid this is getting lost. Most Americans — and I know this from personal experience and from polls. Most Americans want an immigration policy that treats people in a fair and humane way, particularly those who have been here for years, who are becoming de facto Americans, integrated members of society.

    They want to see take care of the dreamer class, but they also want a secure border. And the other reality is that, when we change our policy and we signal to people beyond our borders that, effectively, our borders are open, and that you will not be deported unless you commit a crime, for example, the migrants will hear that message.

    It will be aggravated and amplified by the smugglers. And instead of 100,000 a month, we will be dealing with 200,000, 300,000 a month, and these overcrowded conditions will be even worse.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So continue to keep — keep it illegal to cross the border.

    One quick thing I do want to ask you about, President Trump is talking about tightening asylum laws. Is that an answer to what's going on?

  • Jeh Johnson:

    I believe — and this is reflected in our current laws — that every person who enters our country who makes a claim for asylum has a right to that claim for asylum, and should.

    I think it's fundamental to our American values and who we are as a nation that someone who is being persecuted in a foreign country should have the opportunity to make that case in an immigration court here in this country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the United States should provide facilities, should provide care for them in some way while they're waiting?

  • Jeh Johnson:

    The answer — the answer is, in my view — and this is what we tried to do in the Obama administration — keep them here, let's hire more immigration judges, let's move these cases faster, so they don't take three, four or five years.

    And we were very much started on that path before we left office, rather than deprive someone who is being persecuted in a foreign country of the opportunity to make that case here in the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jeh Johnson, former secretary of homeland security, thank you very much.

  • Jeh Johnson:

    Thanks for having me.

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