What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Napolitano: Trump administration taking prosecutors away from serious crimes to handle border misdemeanors

The Trump administration has argued that it has no choice but separate migrant children and their parents who enter the U.S. illegally. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano says it does have a choice, and that what’s happening is a humanitarian crisis. Napolitano joins Judy Woodruff to offer her reaction to the “zero tolerance” policy, as well as the fate of the DACA program.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And for an opposing view on the immigration crisis, Janet Napolitano. She was secretary of homeland security under President Obama and she was instrumental in immigration decisions, including signing the policy that created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, better known as DACA. She's now the president of the University of California system.

    Janet Napolitano, welcome back to the program.

    You hear what the Trump administration is arguing, that they have no choice, that once people come across the border without documentation and they don't do so at a port of entry, the administration has no choice but to enforce the law, take the parents, prosecute, begin to prosecute them, and take their children away.

  • Janet Napolitano:

    Of course the administration has a choice.

    And the choice is not to do it, and not to do it this way. When somebody crosses the border illegally between a port of entry and is apprehended, that is a federal misdemeanor.

    Under the Obama administration, because of all of the consequences that occur, we would keep those individuals in the civil immigration courts. They would be given a deportation hearing and perhaps deported, but they would be kept together with their children.

    These are not cases of children being brought across by smugglers. Those are unaccompanied children. And that's how we treated them, as unaccompanied children. These are children coming across with their family members.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the administration, again — you heard what Mercedes Schlapp — we heard it today from the president. They — what they are saying is that the law as it's written now requires them either to accept the whole family and just let them come into the country and become, you know — not be followed, or to prosecute the parents.

    Where is the misunderstanding or the disconnect here in understanding what the law says?

  • Janet Napolitano:

    Well, you know, the disconnect is in how the law is enforced.

    In the Obama administration, we enforced the law, but we enforced it using the immigration courts and the deportation process. What the Trump administration has decided to do is to charge each of these adults as criminals, to prosecute them as criminals. Therefore, you have assistant U.S. attorneys, federal prosecutors along the border being taken away from drug smuggling cases and gun-running cases and human trafficking cases to handle these misdemeanors.

    And once the adult is in the criminal justice system, and because then they go under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Marshals, they don't have the capacity to keep children and parents together. And that's where the separation occurs.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's where that rationale comes from.

    So, you have heard the president's argument. He is saying there have been so many illegal immigrants coming into this country. He says the numbers are off the charts. He said — he cited some numbers again today about how many hundreds and hundreds and thousands of people have come in over recent administrations.

    He said, at some point, we have got to draw the line.

  • Janet Napolitano:

    Well, all I would say is that, in the previous administration, illegal migration across the U.S.-Mexico border was driven to 40-year lows.

    And, as far as I can tell, that was the product of enforcement policy that made sense, as well as a strategy of working with the countries of origin to try to deter the source of the illegal migration to begin with.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, when the president says — and talks about smugglers — and you mentioned this a minute ago — he said they are exploiting the law as it's written now.

    He said there has been a 435 percent increase in smuggling or attempted smuggling of not just minors, but families, as well as minors.

  • Janet Napolitano:

    I don't know where he gets those statistics. Frankly, I don't know where the president gets many of his statistics. And I would have to look, and I would have to verify those.

    But what I will tell you is that this is a humanitarian crisis on the border. When you see several thousand children now in six weeks taken from their Parents, Housed in an old Wal-Mart, housed in tents, no system established before they started this policy to figure out, well, how will parents get reunited with their children, thereby opening the door to lengthy separations, that is just wrong.

    That's just not how the border needs to work and it's not how our immigration policy and law actually works.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me quote one of the things the president said today. He said, "Democrats love open borders. Let the whole world come in."

    He said they view them as potential voters who are going to go on and vote for Democrats for office.

  • Janet Napolitano:

    That's so cynical.

    I think what the president's statement overlooks is that so many of these migrants are indeed fleeing desperate circumstances. They have made a treacherous journey to get to the United States, in the hopes of achieving a better life for themselves and for their children.

    And as a nation who likes to say repeatedly we are nation of immigrants, sometimes, that means that, yes, those who cross illegally are not criminally prosecuted; they're handled through the administrative immigration process.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just very quickly, Janet Napolitano, you had meetings on Capitol Hill today about DACA, the minors issues that we have — immigrant minors coming off without documentation.

    Any progress on that front?

  • Janet Napolitano:

    Not that I could see, but this is yet another decision that the president could resurrect with a stroke of his pen, and withdraw his order, rescinding the DACA program, and thereby allow the 700,000 or so dreamers in this country, students at places like the University of California, to remain here safely and securely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Janet Napolitano, former secretary of homeland security, thank you.

  • Janet Napolitano:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment