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Kevin McAleenan on Central American migration and U.S. detention

Acting Sec. of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan recently met with El Salvador's new president, Nayib Bukele, about efforts to stem the tide of migrants heading north toward the U.S. McAleenan sits down with Amna Nawaz, who also made the trip, to discuss what migration levels would be acceptable to the Trump administration and the U.S.-Mexico “partnership” to manage their shared border.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to pivot now to another area of responsibility. I mentioned the immigration detention facilities there.

    I recently had a chance to travel with you to El Salvador.

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You went to go speak to leaders there about some of U.S. immigration priorities.

    And you have made a number of trips to the region, to this area known as the Northern Triangle.

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Sure.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Here now is our report from that visit.

    Alongside El Salvador's new president, Nayib Bukele, acting Secretary McAleenan praised efforts by his host to slow the number of Salvadorans coming to the U.S.

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Since your inauguration just three months ago, CBP has observed a 60 percent decrease in crossings at the U.S. southwest border for individuals from El Salvador.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The pact signed by the two nations last Wednesday aims to further slow that out-migration, already fallen from 16,000 in May to 6,000 in August, with a focus on the root causes that force people to flee in the first place.

    How do you measure success, based on these kinds of agreements?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    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:

    And much of McAleenan's visit focused on creating those economic opportunities, meeting young Salvadorans at a U.S.-funded job training facility, hearing from Salvadorans hired to help protect their own communities, and meeting recently deported Salvadorans to learn what support they receive once back home, all part of a multipronged approach with a Salvadoran president eager to partner with the U.S., according to Charles Call, a Latin America specialist at the Brookings Institution who has tracked President Bukele's first few months in office.

  • Charles Call:

    He's got a message that serves him well, and it serves his relationship with the Trump administration well.

    He wants to basically create an El Salvador where El Salvador is delivering on what it should be delivering on economically and essentially society, a peaceful society, so that people don't want to leave.

    And so that's his message. And that's one that actually jibes very well with what the Trump administration would like to see.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But Call says addressing economic insecurity alone won't keep Salvadorans at home.

  • Charles Call:

    There's lots of poor countries out there. There's poverty in Mexico. There's poverty in other countries of the region.

    What distinguishes those countries from others is the incredibly high insecurity and violence in those countries.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Authorities here in El Salvador have managed to cut the murder rate by about half in the last three years alone, down to about 3,300 last year.

    But the problem is far from solved. And the murder rate here in El Salvador today remains one of the highest in the world. Violence and economic insecurity forced Teadora Guevara De Bonilla's son, named Manuel, to leave 10 years ago.

    She was awaiting his deportation flight from the U.S. when we met her at this repatriation center, worried he may now never see his U.S.-born kids again.

  • Teodora Guevara de Bonilla (through translator):

    He's coming home separated from his family. I have spent nine years already without seeing him, so the same thing could happen to him.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In the same center where she waits, 20-year-old Antonio Velasquez and his two children, 8-year-old Jackeline and 4-year-old Elmer, have just arrived. They were pulled off a bus bound for the U.S. by Mexican authorities, he says, held for a month, then bused back to El Salvador.

    A single father, Velasquez said he left El Salvador to join his mother in Texas, in search of a better life for his kids.

  • Antonia Velasquez (through translator):

    I told them that we were returning to our country, that we came to see family we have here and that our kids were no longer to be with their grandmother. I came with my kids because my country has a lot of poverty, and I want a better future for my kids.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Secretary McAleenan, I want to ask you about some of what you saw down there in El Salvador.

    Some of those programs you were visiting, many of them were funded by the U.S.

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Sure.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    President Trump announced back in April that the U.S. would be cutting — cutting, rather, developmental aid to El Salvador.

    And one expert talked to said, it's really hard to say that you're addressing root causes when you cut out developmental aid like that, which is one of the sources of economic development.

    What do you say to that?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Well, what I saw in El Salvador was not only a whole-of-government effort.

    President Bukele has brought together not only his security agencies, the minister of public security and the minister of defense, but also his social welfare agencies, trying to attack the problem from the community level, from the ground up.

    And that's part of what the U.S. Embassy and teams like the U.S. Agency for International Development and International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau do with El Salvador. They try to help support those programs that are working in an integrated fashion.

    And that's had significant result, as you noted. The murder rate has come down over 50 percent in the last three years. And in the last three months, we have seen another marked drop since President Bukele took office.

    So I'm there looking at what programs are effective, so I can be a good advocate for those programs with the Department of State, with the White House, but also looking at what DHS can do sitting alongside our law enforcement counterparts in El Salvador, on training, on techniques and tactics, and on individual investigations, working on human smuggling and counternarcotics.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But some of those programs have taken years to have any kind of effect.

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Like, those numbers you noted there, yes, they have been coming down in terms of the number of Salvadorans leaving under President Bukele, but those numbers have been coming down for years. It goes back to 2016, right, that the dip actually started, largely as a result of some of these funded programs from the U.S.

    So doesn't cutting this aid undercut your mission?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    So I think working with these governments — and aid is part of the equation. We want to make sure we have accountable partners and that the programs are effective, there is a return on investment for the stated objectives.

    What's really important right now with El Salvador is, we have alignment on the objectives. President Bukele wants to end forced migration from El Salvador in his term. That means people should not have to leave for security reasons. They shouldn't have to leave for lack of economic opportunity.

    And we're going to be there to support that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    President Bukele also said, when I had asked him about this, that he would like to see that migration number go down to zero.

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    He doesn't want any Salvadorans to have to feel like they need to leave their country to find a better opportunity somewhere else.

    I asked you about it. You said you want to get down to historic lows. When you followed up later in our conversation, you said spring 2017 is the target for you.

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So what is that number? Where do you think the U.S. gets below a crisis level at the border?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    So, in the spring of 2017, we had fewer than 20,000 people crossing. And the majority of those were single adults. We were able to really focus on the criminal element, the smugglers trying to exploit our border, bringing hard narcotics across.

    That's a level where we're playing on even footing, as law enforcement, going against smugglers at the border. What we can't have is situations where we have vulnerable populations, families and children, who are enticed by weaknesses in our laws and by human smugglers saying they will be allowed to stay if they go now.

    Coming to the border is a dangerous situation. It enriches the most violent criminals in the hemisphere. And it's obviously not good for the countries they're leaving either, as you heard from President Bukele.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, 20,000 a month, that's the number you're working towards? You don't think, until we get to that number, that we won't be below a crisis at the U.S. southern border?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    So we might be below a crisis, but not at a level where we feel like we're comfortable with the security of the U.S. border.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Is that a number that you have sold the president on; 20,000 is what you're aiming for?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    So, he talks about returning to historic lows. So does the vice president. And that's my target.

    The president's executive order seeks to have us be so effective that nobody can successfully cross the border illegally. I think that's the ultimate target, is to have the resources in place, to have the laws and policies in place where we're very effective in securing that very vast and significantly challenging border.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    At the same time, Mr. Secretary, I have spent a lot of time on the Mexican side of the border as well, mere feet from legal U.S. ports of entry.

    There are lines now backed up…

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    … of families waiting for their chance to legally cross into the United States. And they say they're being made more vulnerable by not being allowed to enter the U.S., by metering, or limiting the number of people allowed in legally, by being forced to wait in Mexico while their asylum cases unfold.

    They say that they're at risk, people are targeting them, because they know that they're unstable, and they have no protection there.

    You have asked Mexico to take care of those people, and they're not doing it.

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So what are you going to do about that?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    So, first and foremost, we have increased to a record level of people we're accepting at ports of entry without documents, many of whom are seeking asylum.

    Last year was a 100 percent increase. And we're going to exceed that at the end of this fiscal year as well. So, our men and women are working very hard to provide access to those who are vulnerable at ports of entry and to handle those cases appropriately.

    But you're absolutely right. This is a partnership with the government of Mexico, that they're both a transit country now, as well as a source country of migration. And they have been working to improve their posture from an enforcement standpoint.

    But we do need them to do more. We need them to provide shelter and protection for people that are waiting in this process and this program that they have agreed to manage with us.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Are you making those requests to them?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Absolutely.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You're holding them accountable in some way to take care of this vulnerable population?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Yes, that's our expectation.

    We're trying to jointly manage this border, from everything like the $2 billion in lawful trade that crosses it every day, which we do together with unified cargo processing, our Customs and Border Protection officers sitting side by side with their customs and agriculture officials, making decisions on cargo.

    We think we need to be doing the same thing on the unlawful and irregular side of the migration flow.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    At the same time, as the number of people crossing the southern border has fallen, so has the number of people in immigration detention.

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Custody times have also fallen.

    At the same time, you have proposed detaining families and children for longer than the previous 20-day limit that was put in place for the best interest of children.

    You have described some of these family detention centers as campus-like settings. But child welfare experts strongly disagree.

    So, why keep children in any kind of detention facility that puts them at mental and physical harm?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    So, let me — let me talk about the family residential centers, which were created in 2014 in response to the first surge of families and children coming to the border, under the — under President Obama and Department of Homeland Security at that time.

    These centers were built, purpose-built, to house families during their immigration proceedings. Again, they have educational facilities, recreational dining, medical. And they're appropriate settings for people to spend a period of time in while they go through immigration proceedings.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes, but child welfare experts say that indefinite detention prolongs and actually exacerbates the chance that children will suffer some kind of trauma.

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    So, I'm glad you mentioned that, this notion of indefinite.

    Sure, there isn't a hard number in terms of how long that proceeding can take. But the average is 40 to 50 days. This is not an extended period of time. It's done as expeditiously as possible, consistent with due process.

    We want to make sure people have an attorney, if they want one, and they have an opportunity to go through the process and make their case.

    But what's — you got to look at the alternative, Amna. The alternative right now is, families are putting themselves in the hands of smuggling organizations, paying $5,000 to $7,000 per person, and facing difficulty on the journey, dying on the way, and really having a situation on our border that's been unacceptable.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But we're talking about what happens after they have already arrived in the U.S.

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You're talking about detaining them for longer in these facilities that welfare experts say is not good for the children.

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    But you need to have integrity in the immigration process.

    You have to get an immigration court result that can be enforced. And when families are released into the United States, even on an alternative to detention, we don't see them showing up for their court hearings in appropriate percentages. And they're not getting a result from that court, meaning, if you have a valid asylum claim, you're not going to get it for five to seven years.

    If you don't have one, you're not going to be repatriated, which means more people will be incentivized to take this dangerous journey as well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thank you very much for your time, for being here today.

    It's acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan.

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    Thank you. Appreciate it.

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