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‘Unconscionable’ to put Border Patrol agents in position of separating families, former commissioner says

The former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the nation's largest federal law enforcement agency, says it’s not only heartbreaking that migrant children are being torn away from their parents; he’s also worried about how it affects Border Patrol agents. John Yang talks with Gil Kerlikowske.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to the immigration debate and a rare view from inside the agency tasked with securing the country’s borders.

    John Yang has more.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, is the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency. It handles border security and trade issues, including immigration.

    Gil Kerlikowske was the head of Customs and Border Protection under President Obama. He served from 2014 until January 2017. He’s now a professor at Northeastern University. And he joins us now.

    Mr. Kerlikowske, thanks for joining us.

  • Gil Kerlikowske:

    Thanks.

  • John Yang:

    I want to start with a little bit of audiotape that ProPublica, the nonprofit journalism organization, got.

    They said it was recorded last week inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility. They won’t say where. The woman — or the person, I should say — we don’t know woman, man — the person who made the recording has asked not to be identified.

    The person gave it to a civil rights attorney in Texas.

    So, let’s take a listen to that tape.

    (CRYING)

  • Child (through translator):

    Daddy! Daddy!

  • Child (through translator):

     Mommy!

    (CRYING)

  • Man (through translator):

    Well, we have an orchestra here, right?

    Where are you from?

  • Child (through translator):

     El Salvador.

  • Child (through translator):

     Guatemala.

  • Man (through translator):

    Don’t cry.

  • John Yang:

    As the man who once ran the agency in charge of that facility, how do you react to that? What is your reaction to that?

  • Gil Kerlikowske:

    Well, those things are absolutely heartbreaking. And it’s heartbreaking, not only to tear these children away from their mothers and fathers, but I’m very concerned about the effect that it would have on these Border Patrol agents.

    I saw them in the toughest of times taking care of, in the summer of 14, 68,000 unaccompanied children. And for them to be put in this position is unconscionable also.

  • John Yang:

    And that — the period you were talking about in 2014, when you took over Customs and Border Protection, there were a lot of unaccompanied children coming across the border or coming to the border.

    Today, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said that the Obama administration did what the Trump administration did, separating families.

    What is your response to that?

  • Gil Kerlikowske:

    So, if someone was arrested for some criminal charges, if they were smuggling drugs also, if they were wanted on warrants, if they are going to be prosecuted, then certainly the family is going to be separated.

    But that number would be absolutely minuscule when you looked at that summer of 2014, with all of those children and all of those families. So, keeping them together and then giving them an opportunity to go to a hearing is the right thing to do, not tearing kids away from their parents.

  • John Yang:

    When you say go to a hearing, now, the administration, the Trump administration, is saying that they are going to prosecute everyone who comes into the country illegally.

    Is that the reason they’re separating them?

  • Gil Kerlikowske:

    So, there is a group of United States attorneys that represent the border U.S. attorneys, and I would meet with them regularly.

    None of the U.S. attorneys, from San Diego across to the — to Texas, would even begin to think that they would have enough resources to prosecute now up to 50,000 people a month. So, to say that we’re doing this just because they’re going to be prosecuted, you know, I clearly agree with what a lot of other people have said.

    This is just being done to try and be some what of a deterrent effect. But, quite frankly, I can’t see it being a very effective deterrent effect, because we have been down that road before.

  • John Yang:

    And your policy wasn’t to prosecute everyone. You would only prosecute those who had other charges against them, were carrying drugs?

  • Gil Kerlikowske:

    Well, Customs and Border Protection has a narrow mission. And they are not the prosecutor, and they are not part of the Department of Justice.

    So, if they had cases where people were wanted on warrants, smuggling drugs, maybe even being human traffickers, that would be up to the Department of Justice. But the mere misdemeanor of crossing the border, particularly with a family, is not going to result in anyone that has the resources to effectively criminally prosecute.

  • John Yang:

    Secretary Nielsen also said a lot of this was being done because they couldn’t prove a family relationship, that they were worried about human smugglers, they were worried about protecting the children, they were doing this to protect the children.

    What is your response?

  • Gil Kerlikowske:

    So, I sat down in those centers many, many times, not only McAllen, but Brownsville and others places along the border.

    Quite frankly, I think we’re giving a lot of credit to the smarts and the sophistication, if that is what is going on. These experienced Border Patrol agents, myself, having a long career in law enforcement, we never even began to detect that these young people, these families coming across were doing it for some nefarious purpose of being able to get into the country by using children.

    I mean, it was very clear these are family units.

  • John Yang:

    And she also said that the current law encourages families to put children in the hands of human smugglers.

  • Gil Kerlikowske:

    Well, I think the potential of coming across the border and making a claim of credible fear, making an asylum claim, and having your family or your children with you can be enhanced somewhat by that.

    I don’t see it, though, as the cause. I see it as the fact that people are leaving these three countries for a variety of reasons, not just crime, but also economic reasons, also. You know, they’re coming with their families.

  • John Yang:

    She also said that if someone wanted to legitimately claim asylum, they should go to a port of entry, and not just cross the border at any place.

  • Gil Kerlikowske:

    Well, ports of entry could be a little more helpful.

    What I saw, certainly, and I think what we see in many places, whether it’s in San Ysidro or places in McAllen, Texas, ports of entry are incredibly busy. And, remember, it’s not just people coming through. It is all of the cargo that we depend on, all of the trade that we depend on that is also coming through the port.

  • John Yang:

    Gil Kerlikowske, a former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, thanks so much.

  • Gil Kerlikowske:

    Thank you.

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