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Trump administration wants Congress to fix immigration loophole, White House says

The outcry over President Trump's policy of separating immigrant families has reached a crescendo that extends beyond party lines. White House Director of Strategic Communications Mercedes Schlapp says President Trump hates seeing families separated, but that the Trump administration currently has only two legal options. Schlapp joins Judy Woodruff to offer the view from the White House.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The outcry over President Trump's policy of separating immigrant families has reached a crescendo that extends beyond party lines.

    Earlier this evening, I spoke with Mercedes Schlapp. She's the White House director of strategic communications.

    And I began by asking if Mr. Trump is hearing the criticism, including from inside his own party.

  • Mercedes Schlapp:

    Well, absolutely.

    I mean, the president, as he mentioned before, he hates seeing the separation of families, and even though the separation of families is only for a very brief period of time.

    But the reality here is, one of the reasons why President Trump is in Congress and speaking to these House members is coming up with a permanent solution, coming up with a fix to this. Only Congress can fix this issue that we're dealing with in terms of ensuring that we're able to secure the border, that we're able to keep families together, because right now, Judy, we only have two options.

    The two options are when that adults basically cross the border illegally, they will be prosecuted. The second option is it's either — so it's either the prosecution, and the second option is releasing these family units into the U.S. interior, which in essence equates to open borders.

    So we want that third option. We want the option that Congress is going to come and fix this, and ensure that they're able to keep families together, so that they could be detained and then swiftly removed back to their country unless they qualify for asylum.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But it was a change in approach to this policy, a change in policy by the Trump administration, when this started happening. It was six weeks ago the administration said, we're no longer going to keep these families together. We are going to prosecute the parents. That's the change, isn't it?

  • Mercedes Schlapp:

    Well, the change is, is because we're actually enforcing the law. The law wasn't being enforced beforehand.

    It was actually more of a subjective case or prosecutorial discretion. At this point, it was clear by the Department of Justice that it wanted to move in order to — those individuals who are crossing the border illegally.

    We have to remember that. There are ports of entry where these individuals can come in through a legal process and apply for asylum. And when they go through those ports of entry — there's 26 of those along the 2,000-mile border — that's an area where you won't have your — be separated from the family.

    But, as we know, in American law, is, when you are — commit a crime, you can be an American citizen, you will be separated from your family. And this is the case in this situation, which means that, if you commit a crime, meaning you cross the border illegally, not through these ports of entry, you will be prosecuted.

    Yes, you are separated from the family for a brief period of time during the hearings itself and then reunited. But that is where we are at this point. And what we need is, we need Congress to take action to fix this problem. This is very simple.

    This is about ending a legal loophole. This is something that the president has pushed forward, was ending catch and release, where you're able to keep these families together and then be able to either — either hear their cases or remove them from the country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you're saying — so it was an administration's decision to enforce something.

    But my question is, it sounds like you're saying the president, the only thing he will accept now is having the entire family sent back across the border.

  • Mercedes Schlapp:

    Well, again, if they go through these ports of entry and they are able to — we talk about credible fear, and apply for asylum, their cases will be heard. We have a very large backlog of cases, based on our limited resource, but their cases will be heard.

    So, you have these ports of entries where these families can go through, in essence. What we are seeing, though, is these individuals who are coming between these ports of entry. What you're also seeing is that smugglers and human traffickers are exploiting these children.

    You're having parents who are basically sending their children alone, many in the hands of smuggler, to get through into our country. And that's not acceptable.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me just ask you this. You know that what is going on in these countries is, there is a dangerous situation. These families are coming because they are being set upon. They have seen violence inflicted on them and family members and loved ones by gangs.

  • Mercedes Schlapp:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There's a lawlessness. They're coming here seeking safety.

  • Mercedes Schlapp:

    Right. So, let me ask you, is it your safe to put your child in the hands of a smuggler? Is it safe, Judy?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, is it safe to stay in a place in either Guatemala or Honduras or El Salvador where you're dealing with those — living with those conditions?

  • Mercedes Schlapp:

    And what is amazing about America is that we have the most generous immigration laws. There is a legal way to apply to come into our country.

    In addition to that, if those individuals are doing this dangerous trek into the United States, they need to go through the ports of entry, which then they won't be separated from their family. They can apply for asylum.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And there is some backlog at those ports of entry.

  • Mercedes Schlapp:

    Exactly, because of the fact that we have had such limited resources and funding that is coming from Congress.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me just quickly ask you two other things. One is, a number of people are saying the president chose to do this, to enforce this policy six weeks ago, in order basically to leverage this in order to get more money for a border wall. Is that what's going on?

  • Mercedes Schlapp:

    Look, this is — the only political play that's being made right now is the Democrats showing up to these detention centers and making this into this big political issue.

    We want to have solutions. We want to work with Congress. We want to work with both parties to ensure, as the president did back in October of last year, when he came up with a comprehensive and generous bill on immigration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, Mercedes Schlapp, as the mother of young children yourself, what's your reaction when you see these pictures and hear the sounds of these children crying?

  • Mercedes Schlapp:

    Look, as I have mentioned before, and for the president and the first lady, we hate seeing this. It's sad. It's tragic. It's so tragic, especially when you have smugglers exploiting and taking advantage of these children.

    It's absolutely heartbreaking. And so this is the type of what we need to stop in terms of ensuring that individuals who want to come to America apply safely, if they're going to go and they're going through ports of entry, which is through a legal way, where you don't separate families.

    But breaking the law in a country, that, in and of itself, is — it's harmful. It's harmful to them, and it's harmful to their children.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mercedes Schlapp at the White House, thank you very much.

  • Mercedes Schlapp:

    Thank you so much.

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