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In El Salvador to discuss immigration, McAleenan emphasizes need for ‘well-managed’ border

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan is currently on a three-day trip to Central America to discuss migration and border security with leaders in El Salvador. Reporting from San Salvador, Amna Nawaz joins Judy Woodruff to talk about McAleenan's agenda, gang violence and whether the Trump administration’s strategy to reduce Central American migration to the U.S. will succeed.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The acting secretary of homeland security, Kevin McAleenan, is on a three-day trip to Central America to talk about migration and border security with leaders in El Salvador.

    Our Amna Nawaz is along with McAleenan on this visit. And she joins me now from San Salvador, the capital.

    Amna, hello.

    So, this is McAleenan's, what, second trip to El Salvador in this role. What are they looking to accomplish?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, Judy, basically, Secretary McAleenan is trying the formalize some of those past negotiations and conversations he's been having with leaders here in the area.

    It's not just El Salvador. He's been meeting with leaders in Guatemala and Honduras, again, these Northern Triangle countries, where we know the vast majority of people crossing the U.S. southern border come from.

    What was signed yesterday is basically called a letter of intent. It's important because it's not binding. It's not a formal deal or agreement in any way. But what it does do is broadly lay out four areas the U.S. says are common areas both El Salvador and the U.S. can move forward to try to reduce some of those migration numbers.

    The U.S. officials laid them out to us in these four categories. It's border security, information-sharing, asylum capacity, and economic investment. But, obviously, the overall goal here is to reduce the number of people looking to cross the U.S. southern border.

    So I asked Secretary McAleenan, when you're working towards that goal, what does success look like? What is the threshold you're working towards? Here's what he had to say to me in response.

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    The desire is to have a secure and well-managed border.

    We want to return to historic lows, so that really we're not seeing a flow of vulnerable families and children that are responding to weaknesses in the legal framework in the United States or to the types of policy objectives that the president here is trying to counter, forced migration, where it's either due to security concerns or lack of economic opportunity.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Secretary McAleenan actually went on to say the primary driver that they have seen specifically among people coming from El Salvador is economic.

    So, Judy, I can tell you what we have heard from folks here on the ground when it comes to where they're putting their energy and their effort right now, economic investment seems to be one of the main areas of U.S. focus — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there any indication that these deals will work?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, officials here were really keen to tell us about some of the numbers they have already seen from here in El Salvador.

    Here's what they told us yesterday. The number of Salvadorans crossing the U.S. border in May was 16,000. In August, they say they got that number down to 6,000. That's something they hold up as a sign of success that a lot of these efforts and a lot of these conversations are working.

    It's also worth pointing out, though, that, overall, when it comes to southern U.S. border crossings, those numbers have gone down. In July, in fact, those total numbers were below 100,000 for the first time in about five months. We know that detention numbers have actually gone down. Custody times in detention have also gone down.

    So, overall, because of weather, because of historical trends, but also largely because of a number of the steps the Trump administration has been taking to try to add deterrents, to try to limit the number of people crossing the U.S. southern border, those numbers have been going down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Amna, we know that El Salvador does have problems, major problems with violence, especially with regard to gangs.

    What did the president of El Salvador have to say about that?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes, Judy.

    Obviously, addressing those homicide rates and the violence levels here, it's been a priority, not just for this president, President Bukele, who just came into power a few months ago, but for previous administrations as well.

    It's worth noting they have seen those numbers going down. He's implemented much more heavy-handed law enforcement tactics when it comes to addressing some of that gang violence.

    But, look, there are also things that President Bukele wants to see from the U.S., in addition to security help, things that weren't necessarily mentioned by U.S. officials.

    I asked President Bukele directly, when you're in these conversations with the U.S., what is it you're asking for, when the U.S. is asking for your cooperation to help stem the flow of people coming from El Salvador?

    He listed a few things, including some kind of permanent status for Salvadorans in the U.S., many of whom have DACA protection or TPS protection. He also mentioned asking the U.S. to lower the State Department travel warning level from a 3 to a 2 for El Salvador, which he thinks would help to encourage tourism.

    And he also said that he would much rather have economic investment in some form, rather than any kind of economic aid — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amna Nawaz, reporting for us from San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, thanks.

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