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U.S. House prepares for immigration legislation amid migrant surge at the border

The Biden administration had promised a humane approach to immigration but is now facing upheaval at the southern border, as illegal migrant crossings have skyrocketed in the past few months and authorities struggle to find proper housing for thousands of unaccompanied minors. Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, whose Texas district is located on the southern border, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. secretary of homeland security warned today that the migrant surge at the Southern border is on track to reach a 20-year high.

    Alejandro Mayorkas said that the majority of those being expelled are single adults, but that unaccompanied children are not being turned back. All this is playing out while the House of Representatives plans to vote on immigration legislation this week.

    Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar's district is located on the Southern border, and he joins me now.

    Congressman, very good to have you with us. Thank you so much.

  • Rep. Henry Cuellar:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When you hear that eye-popping forecast by the homeland security secretary for the Biden administration, coupled with what we heard yesterday from the Republican House leader, Kevin McCarthy, that there is a crisis on the border, it gets our attention.

    How bad is the situation there?

  • Henry Cuellar:

    You know, we still are not at the high levels that we had in the surge of 2019, under President Trump.

    At that time, for example, May of 2019 was 144,000 people that came in. Last month, we hit 100,000. But what makes it a little bit more difficult is that we're in the middle of a pandemic. About 83 percent are single adults.

    Those people have been returned under what we call Title 42. It's the kids that are coming in that we are going to take care of. Once they're here, we're going to take care of them like if they're our own kids.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you say it's getting a little bit worse, but these numbers are, as we're hearing from the homeland security secretary, hitting — about to hit a 20-year high.

    We know that thousands of these children are now — you're having — the country — the United States is having to find a home for them. Why isn't the policy there to manage this situation right now?

  • Henry Cuellar:

    Well, this is something that some people act surprised, and they shouldn't be surprised, because, look, we have seen a surge in 2014. We saw a surge in 2019. And we should have learned lessons learned on how we move in.

    We get FEMA down there and we take care of those kids. So a lot of these things are something that, for us on the border, we don't just go visit the border. We live there. We have seen this before. And people need to understand that, from the lessons learned, we ought to just manage that particular situation on the border.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What needs to be done right now, Congressman, to deal with this?

  • Henry Cuellar:

    Well, a couple of things.

    One, once the kids are here, we're going to take care of the kids, number one. Number two, Title 42, which is being used for public health, we're returning the adults back, and even some family units back. And then the other thing is, we have got to get the right message.

    You know, when you say don't come now, come later, that message, in my opinion, is not a very good message. We have to be very clear as to what we mean on the border, because the president or the administration's message is not getting through.

    I will tell you what is getting through, because I have asked people this question. One, the friends, the neighborhood, the friends and the cousins network, hey, guess what? We're coming across. We got over here. You come over. This is the time to do it, number one.

    And then you have the drug cartels that are aggressively marketing, because any time they get somebody, they make money. So, those two messages are being heard right now. And this message, don't come now, come later, with all due respect, is not being heard down there in Central America or Mexico.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But what should the Biden administration do, is my question, because, right now, the administration is allowing unaccompanied teenagers and children to stay here.

    It is allowing many families with young children to stay here. That message is getting across to people in Central America south of the border.

  • Henry Cuellar:

    Right.

    And I was at a center in Carrizo Springs. And I asked that question of the 16-, 17-year-olds who were there. I asked them, what message? And they said, well, we keep seeing TV images in Central America about people coming across. So, they see that image.

    And as I told the former Secretary Jeh Johnson, former homeland secretary for President Obama, hey, you got to show some images that you actually are returning people. Show that you're returning the adults. Show that you're returning people back, because if all they're going to see are images of people coming across into the United States, yes, then that's what they're — that's what they're going to believe and hear.

    Look, let me put it this way. When the president of Mexico calls the president of the United States the migrant president, and giving hope for people to come across, that tells you that Latin America is seeing a very different or hearing a very different message from what we're trying to portray.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you have said, Congressman — I read a quote from you the other day. You said the Biden administration hadn't listened to you. You went to them early. You said you went to them back in January, told them some things they needed to do. You said they weren't listening.

    Are they listening to you now? You said when they sent a delegation to the border last weekend, they didn't talk to members of Congress.

  • Henry Cuellar:

    Well, they didn't.

    In fact, I think it was within a week of January the 20th. I was already telling the White House, the people that I know there, I want you to pay attention. This is happening, this is happening. Pay attention to this.

    So, even within a week of the inauguration, I was telling my contacts at the White House, pay attention to what is happening, because, again, if you don't handle this quickly and in the right way, it is going to get out of hand. And what is going to happen is, you're going to have Republicans just saying the Democrats are weak on border security.

    And when we vote on the DREAM Act this week or the guest worker plan, I promise you that's what you're going to hear from the Republicans on the floor to vote against immigration reform.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what does that mean, in terms of legislation this week?

  • Henry Cuellar:

    Well, I mean, I believe we have the votes to pass the DREAM Act and a guest worker plan.

    If you notice, the comprehensive immigration reform, how do you deal with 11 and 12 million, it's not on the floor. There's a particular reason why, until the support is there, at least among the Democrats.

    So, what you're going to do is, we're going to do the DREAM Act and the guess worker plan, which are piecemeal, but you still — I promise you, you're going to hear Republicans on the floor say, I went down there to the border, we saw this border out of control, and they're going to say that over and over and over again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot of questions. A lot of questions.

    Congressman Henry Cuellar, thank you very much.

  • Henry Cuellar:

    Thank you so much.

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