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Outgoing ICE director says separating parents and children is ‘sad’ but part of the job

Migrants who enter the U.S. illegally shouldn’t be surprised by recent reports of children being separated from their parents at the border — they should expect it, a top immigration official said Thursday.

Thomas Homan, the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told the PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff that migrants crossing the border “don’t understand” U.S. immigration laws.

“Apparently these people don’t understand what exactly is happening,” said Homan, who is retiring next month.

Homan said it’s “unfortunate, it’s sad” when children in the U.S. are separated from parents charged with crimes, including for entering the country illegally. But he noted there were logistical challenges in keeping families in those situations together. “A child can’t go to U.S. Marshals’ custody with the parents being charged with the crime of entering the country illegally,” he said.

Though federal officials have not provided specific figures on family separations at the border, more than 700 migrant children have been taken from adults claiming to be their parents since last October — including 100 children under age 4, according to a recent New York Times data review.

In the NewsHour interview, Homan urged eligible migrants to seek asylum instead of attempting to entry the country illegally.

“If they really are escaping fear and persecution, looking for relief in this country, why not come to a port of entry” and file for asylum, Homan said. In that scenario, he added, “you’re not taking your child across the river, you’re not taking them through a canyon, where that child could be hurt.”

Other highlights from the conversation:

  • Homan declined to address speculation that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen might resign amid a feud with President Donald Trump: “She has a tough job,” Homan said of Nielsen. ”She’s a good secretary, she’s doing a good job, and I support her 100 percent.”
  • On recent studies suggesting illegal immigration does not increase violent crime rates:
    “I get asked all the time: ‘Do illegal aliens commit more crimes than U.S. citizens?’” Homan said. “That’s not the question. The question is, ‘Every crime committed by an illegal alien is a preventable crime. They should not have happened if they should not have been here.’”

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We turn now to U.S. immigration policy and the agency tasked with enforcing this country's laws, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

    Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan has served under six U.S. presidents. His 30-plus years in immigration enforcement will come to an end when he retires at the end of next month.

    Thomas Homan, welcome to the NewsHour.

  • Thomas Homan:

    Thank you. Thanks for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, your first job was as a border agent. You're familiar with this subject personally.

    I want to start with the mission of ICE and to ask whether, under President Trump, it's fair to say that it's no longer going after mainly those immigrants who have committed serious crimes, but going after immigrants who are here without documentation, regardless of age, whether they are parents, whether they hold down a job or what.

    Is that accurate?

  • Thomas Homan:

    No, that is not accurate.

    I looked at the numbers just today. Nine out of the 10 immigrants we arrested, we got through the criminal justice system.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what percent of those are violent crimes?

  • Thomas Homan:

    I don't have that number with me.

    But, again, we have got to remember, though, I enforce immigration law. There is no prerequisite that an illegal alien has to commit a criminal violation, on top of entering the country illegally, which is a crime.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, I want to ask you about incidents like this one. I know you're familiar with this. This was an incident in Los Angeles last year.

    A man who was — job was making tacos, he was arrested. He was taking his two daughters to school. The 14-year-old daughter recorded this video on her cell phone. Here's what she recorded.


  • Woman:

    (Through interpreter) Don't cry, honey. Don't cry. You have to be strong.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, this was recorded, as we said, when her father was picked up.

    I think the question that a number of people have is, how does it make the country safer to have — this is a man who was in the country without documents — that's true — had a DUI record from 10 years previously.

    But does it make the country safer to pick up people who have children?

  • Thomas Homan:


    I mean, bad people have children. DUI, people might not think of as a serious crime, but 10,000 people a year — over 10,000 people a year die from DUI.

    Now, look, I see — I see this all the time. I have been doing this 33 years. I see a lot of things that are sad. And I have said many times I feel bad for the plight of some of these folks.

    But I have a job to do. If the message we want to keep sending to the rest of the world is, it's OK to enter this country illegally and violate the laws of this country, as long as you successfully hide out for 10 years, as long as you have a U.S. citizen child while you're here illegally and hide out, now you're immune from law enforcement, now you're immune from the laws of this country, if that's the message we want to continue sending, we're never going to fix the illegal immigration crisis.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All this has added up, I think, what you're saying, and the message coming out from the Trump administration, including from the president himself, has created, I think it's fair to say, a charged atmosphere in immigrant communities around this country, even at places that were considered safe, like courthouses, where immigrants go to check in regularly.

    Just last month in Tennessee, there was a — what is it, a meatpacking plant. Almost 100 employees were rounded up. The next day, for example, at school, hundreds of schoolchildren didn't go to class because of what had happened.

    Is this the climate, a climate of fear, that ICE seeks to perpetrate around the country?

  • Thomas Homan:

    Look, we're a sovereign country. We have a right to protect our borders. We have a right to enforce the law.

    Let's talk about courthouse real quick. Why is it bad for a federal law enforcement officer to arrest a criminal inside of a courthouse, a criminal courthouse, OK? They're behind a wire, which means we know they don't have weapons. They went through a security check. It's much safer for my officers, much safer for that person if we arrest them in a criminal courthouse.

    Now, I have been in courthouses where I watched judges ordered a father arrested because he didn't pay child support. That's OK. But a federal law enforcement officer who is sworn to enforce immigration law can't arrest a criminal inside a criminal courthouse?

    That's exactly where we should be arresting them. And we don't target victims or witnesses in the court. We don't arrest them in the courtrooms. We arrest them in a non-public area. We work with the court personnel.

    As far as work site, illegal employment is a magnet to illegal immigration. And as long as folks think they come into this country and get a job illegally, they are going to keep coming. We have got to remove that magnet. There are laws on that, too.

    And I want to make one thing clear, because this is a constant question I get. People that employ illegal aliens are not doing it out of the goodness of their heart. They are paying them less wages, many times to take advantage of them, and they work them very hard for a little bit of money.

    It's an unfair advantage to their competitors. And it's unfair. Many of these workers steal Social Security numbers of U.S. citizens. There is tax fraud. There's people losing their identity, Social Security number being misused.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But in the case of this meatpacking plant, my understanding is, the owners were not charged with any — were not charged.

  • Thomas Homan:

    That's a criminal investigation. I can't comment on that.

    But I can tell you that that investigation involved more than just illegal alien hiring.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There's another set of statistics that we have looked at.

    Studies looked at large cities with higher immigrant populations. They found the crime rate in these places remained stable or even fell. There are separate studies showing communities with more undocumented, with a growing number of undocumented immigrants equates often with a decrease in violent crime.

    Do you see those studies, those statistics as well?

  • Thomas Homan:

    No, I don't.

    And they obviously aren't counting immigration crime. Entering this country illegally is a crime. If you are in this country illegally, you committed a crime by entering this country illegally. So, let's remember — and that is a crime, federal crime.

    But the question to ask isn't so much — because I get asked all the time, do illegal aliens commit more crimes than U.S. citizens? That's not the question. The question is, every crime committed by an illegal alien is a preventable crime that shouldn't have happened because they shouldn't have been here.

    So, we can prevent a lot of crimes by making sure we fix the immigration system. And, look, I'm all for — the system needs to be fixed. I'm the first one to agree to that.

    But the way — but we can't just can't ignore it. For Congress to say in the last — under the last president, well, ignore this piece of law and ignore that piece of the law, don't prioritize this, that's not the way a law enforcement agency should operate.

    If the law doesn't work, then fix the law. Don't ask the law enforcement officer to ignore it. No one asks the FBI to ignore their job. No one asks the DEA to do their job. We're no different.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is not directly under your jurisdiction, Director Homan, but it is part of how the Trump administration is choosing to enforce the law.

    It is now separating children from their parents by the hundreds, more than 700 since last October. We're told more than 100 children under the age of 4.

    Even conservatives, Congressman Mark Meadows, have been saying families should be kept together. American Association of Pediatrics is saying it hurts these children, these vulnerable children, to take them away.

    How do you explain that approach, that policy?

  • Thomas Homan:

    The message has been muddied.

    Apparently, these people don't understand what exactly is happening. If people really have a fear of persecution in their homeland, and they want to file for asylum claims, they come to a port of entry, present themselves, which the law says they have a right to file for asylum, but come to the port of entry, present yourself, make your claim.

    You're still going to get the same judicial process, but do it through the legal channels. Don't enter between the port of entries.

    If they really are escaping fear and persecution and looking for relief in this country, why not come to a port of entry and turn yourself over to a law enforcement officer and say, I want to file for asylum?

    And you get to file asylum. You're not taking your child across the river. You're not taking them through a canyon where that child can be hurt or they could be hurt. Do it the safe way.

    This isn't just about enforcing the law. See, that is the message that doesn't get out. This is about saving lives and protecting these immigrants, too.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, again, American Academy of Pediatrics, 66,000 pediatricians: "We urge policy-makers to be mindful these are vulnerable, scared children. To separate them from their family is harsh and counterproductive."

  • Thomas Homan:

    Children get separated from parents every day in this country when their parents are arrested for criminal violations.

    Again, I have arrested violence for domestic violence back when I was a police officer. I separated that father and that child. It's unfortunate. It's sad. But a child certainly can't go to a county lockup with a father. A child can't go into U.S. Marshals' custody with the parents being charged with a crime or entering the country illegally.

    Again, we have made it clear. We have done numerous news broadcasts. You have a right to claim asylum in this country, but go to a port of entry and present yourself. You get the same protections, but you're not violating the law.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen, there's been a lot of reporting about disagreements between her and President Trump, whether she is planning to leave.

    Do you know about anything that?

  • Thomas Homan:


    Kirstjen Nielsen is a — she's a good secretary. She is stepping up to the plate. She has a tough job. Immigration enforcement is a very controversial, very emotional issue. And it's been the entire 34 years I have been doing this.

    But she's a good secretary, she's doing a good job, and I support her 100 percent.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tom Homan, the director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, thank you very much.

  • Thomas Homan:

    Thank you, ma'am.

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