“We Have to Control Our Border”: Thomas Homan, Former Acting ICE Director


July 31, 2018

Thomas Homan served as acting director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency for the Trump administration from Jan. 2017 until the end of this June. Under President Barack Obama, Homan led the Enforcement and Removal Operations division of ICE, which is in charge of deportations.

FRONTLINE reached out to the White House for an interview while filming Separated: Children at the Border, and was referred to Homan. FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith conducted this interview on July 17, 2018, shortly after Homan retired.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s begin with [then-presidential candidate Donald] Trump’s announcement that he’s going to run for office. He’s at Trump Tower. He comes down the escalator and he makes mention of those that are coming across the border, that many are criminals, rapists, bad people. How did you react at that time?

First of all, I felt it [was] a long shot when he first announced his presidency. You know, because I’m used to the political landscape, people that’ve been in politics a long time. So, I listened. I saw it. I thought it was a long shot. I thought he was a little off point as far as immigration — needed to be more thoroughly briefed on what’s going on at the border. But it was really interesting. But my first gut reaction was long shot.

Long shot that he would win, but off point a bit on what was happening at the border. What do you mean? 

I think there’s a lot of criminals [that] come across the border. And there’s a lot of people who aren’t criminals who are trying to come to the United States to better their lives. In my 34 years doing this work, there’s a lot of them [that] come across the border illegally, which I’ve said a thousand times is a crime, to enter the country illegally.

But after they’re here, they try to find a job. And they send money back to their home, whether it’s Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala to their families, to support families. So, not all criminals, most [are] not criminals other than the criminal act they do when they enter the country illegally.

You say that coming across the border is a crime. What class of crime are we talking about? Define what it means to come across the border illegally.

Your first offense [coming] across the border is a violation of a United States code 1325, which is a misdemeanor. Second offense is a felony. …After being formally removed by an immigration judge or under immigration order, if you re-enter illegally again, then that’s a felony. But the first illegal entry is a misdemeanor.

A misdemeanor. So, how serious is that?

DUI’s a misdemeanor. I think it’s pretty serious. Over 10,000 people a year die from DUI. And that’s a misdemeanor. …We’re a sovereign country. We have a right to control our borders, decide who comes in. Congress enacted the Immigration and Nationality Act many years ago. …

I agree with it. Of course, most people don’t get prosecuted for it — in the 34 years I’ve been in. I mean, until the border patrol came up with Operation Streamline where they get someone who has numerous illegal entries, then they’ll prosecute them under Streamline at the southern border.

That was under Bush?


Bush II.

Yes. But in my days in the border patrol, 1984-1988, very few people were prosecuted for that unless they had numerous illegal entries.

When you were in the border patrol, people were coming across. That’s a misdemeanor. If they came across again it was a felony. Was it frustrating that a lot of those people weren’t prosecuted, to you?

Yeah. As a police officer in New York, I mean, I’m used to [if] people break the law, they’re held accountable. When I was in border patrol… you’d arrest somebody three times in one day, same person. You know, you arrest them, you process them… Three hours later, you’re catching them a mile down the road, coming across again. So, there were many times where I’d arrest the same guy three times a day. So that was frustrating.

Why are they coming across?

There’s a lot of reasons I think they’re coming across. And I think one of them is financial, you know, economics. They’re coming over to find a job. And that’s why as the [acting] director of ICE, I increased enforcement three-fold, to take that magnet away. I think a lot come across to reunify a family.

To be honest with you, I think a lot come across to have U.S. citizen children, to get their footprint here in the United States. There’s a lot of reasons. Mostly it’s family reunification. And seeking employment to support their families. Some come over to enter into criminal enterprises whether it’s drugs or weapons — smuggling. But there’s a hundred different reasons why somebody would come to the United States.

Well, people talk about — that I’ve spoken to at the border — that they’re fleeing violence, that there were threats against them by gang members– in their home country and that’s why they fled.

Well, I’ll tell you, like, I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been to El Salvador. I’ve been to Honduras and Guatemala in the last couple years. Do I think some of these people that are claiming fearing persecution have [a] case? Yes.

But do I think many are taking advantage of a system — don’t really have a solid claim, but they’re taken advantage of a little threshold, or loophole in the system? Absolutely.

So you say most of them, you think, are coming for economic opportunity or to reunite with relatives?

Over my 34 years, that’s kind of the main reason.

Is that anecdotal? And I don’t want to devalue that. I mean, I don’t want to put that down. But, I mean, is there solid data that lets us know who’s coming across for what reason?

I don’t think so. I mean, there’s been studies done by groups. But as far as the government data, you know, when they’re arrested, they do an I-213, that’s record [of deportable/inadmissible alien] by land. And where [he’s] arrested, when did he cross, where’s he’s from, criminal history, take his finger prints, but… in my day, never asked, “Well, why’re you coming?” But you enter into conversations.

I mean, I’m from upstate New York, never spoke a word of Spanish. I did very well at the border patrol academy. So I would spend my day practicing with those I arrested. Between the time I arrested them and returned them, which could be a couple of hours, you talk to them. And you find out, you know, about their families, where they’re from and…

My time in the border patrol, I learned a lot of the reasons they’re coming, mostly for employment, [to] find a job. Lately, I would say in the last couple years, I think, you know, we got a booming economy, people want to come here and get a job. But I think there’s also an opportunity because the criminal organizations are exploiting the loopholes in our system.

And that’s what the evidence shows. That’s what our intelligence report shows, that these criminal organizations are coaching the people [on] what to say, tell them they can come in under these loopholes, now’s your chance, before the wall moves up. There’s a hundred different stories these criminal organizations use.

One of the big ones I’ve been fighting for a year and a half is sanctuary cities. Sanctuary cities [are] being used by criminal organizations, “Look I’ll get you to Los Angeles for $7,000. And even if you get arrested by the local police, they’re not going to cooperate with ICE.”

Sanctuary city is another enticement for people to make that dangerous journey. So there’s a lot of reasons people are coming. But right now I think it’s to take advantage of loopholes. And that’s why we’ve asked Congress, before I retired, to address these loopholes to help close this method of entering the country illegally.

By not closing loopholes, we’re bankrolling these criminal organizations, the same criminal organizations that rape these women, have abused the children, have left them stranded to die, have killed more patrol agents, have killed special agents with ICE. So we’ve got to close loopholes just not to address illegal immigration, but to stop bankrolling these criminal organizations, these transnational criminal organizations. And lastly…

Just as this is about law enforcement, it’s about saving lives. The more we entice people to come to this country illegally, the more people are going to die on the trip, more people are going to drown in the river, more people are going to be abused by these criminal organizations, and more people are going to be victims of trafficking, pay their fees off working up here under peonage to pay off their fees.

…So, I know that people see Tom Homan as this pro-enforcement guy, you know, this hardcore enforcement guy. But in my 34 years, I’ve seen a lot of terrible things, things that still bother me to this day, that keep me up at night. And if people saw what I saw in my 34 years, they’d want to stop illegal immigration, too.

You say most are coming for economic reasons.


So how many of those people would be criminals?

If you enter this country illegally, that’s a crime.

…But what percentage is it of the overall number that are apprehended at the border?

I really don’t have that number.

But that would be important, right?

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. But it happens, is what I’m saying. It happens. I will tell you, I don’t have the exact numbers, but I know that the last report I reviewed is that the instances of someone claiming a parent that’s not a parent has increased over 300 percent in the last two years. Now, what’s that number?

But that could be–

–I don’t remember.

–300 percent off of a very low base number. I mean the question is if only 1 percent of the people apprehended over a year, according to [Department of Homeland Security] statistics–

The 1 percent that were caught. How many were not caught that weren’t parents?

Well we can’t spec–

We don’t know that.

We can only speculate. We don’t know. But if out of the sample only 1 percent are making false family claims, then there’s a question as to how– many of them really are we talking about?

One’s too many.

One’s too many?

One’s too many. I mean, that’s why–

But if it punishes the group because we enforce at the border, I mean, we have to balance enforcement at the border. If there’s a few bad examples, that should not justify clamping down on all those people with legitimate asylum claims, right?

Everybody has a due process. They’ve claimed asylum and they [are going to] get due process. But you’ve got to remember, okay, your stats, how many cases are denied by the immigration court? The thresholds are so low for the asylum claims, most of them make it because they coach them [on] what to say. But when they get released to go to court, if they show up in court — most do not…

Most show up in court.

But most don’t win their cases.

Well, there’s a backlog, right?

But most don’t win their case… You look at the data from the Executive Office of Immigration Review, most don’t win their cases because they can’t prove the cases, or they’re frivolous claims.

Or those claims are still in process because there’s a huge backlog because we don’t have enough resources.

I’m talking about ones [that] have been decided. A majority lose their case because they’re frivolous claims. And here’s what really bothered me when I was the director of ICE, I’ve got people, Democrats on the Hill, and some of these groups, saying, “These [people] have a right to come to this country and make an asylum claim. They have a right to see a judge.” And I agree with them. They have a right to due process.

Under an international law.

Yeah, absolutely. So, I want to make sure they see a judge. But at the end of that, when the judge makes a decision, if you don’t have a claim, you need to go home. That… removal order has to mean something or there’s no integrity in the entire system.

The biggest issue that I faced as a director, and the most hate… “Why’d you arrest somebody that’s been here 10 years that has two… children? Why’d you have to break up that family?” Well, because he had due process at great tax payer expense. He was ordered removed, became a fugitive. He chose — knowing he was in the country illegally, knowing that he’s been ordered removed, knowing he ignored the judge’s order — chose to have children. He put himself in that position.

He pays the cost. But so do the children.

That’s his problem.

But those children are innocent.

Absolutely. Shame on that parent for putting them in that position. Shame on that parent for doing that. So, there’s the issue, right.

Everybody says they hate ICE. “Let’s abolish ICE for separating families.” Well, what responsibility does that parent have when number one, he entered the country illegally, which is a crime. Two, ignored a federal judge’s order.

If you and I ignored a federal judge’s order, what would happen to us? We’d go to jail. Three, he chose to start a family knowing what his position is in the United States. He has to take a major part of the responsibility of that family being separated. He chose that circumstance.

To vilify the men and women of ICE, to call for the abolishment of ICE because you’re simply enforcing the laws enacted by Congress… is just wrong.

If the message we want to send to the rest of the world is, “Come to this country illegally,” we’ll spend billions of dollars on border security, immigration court, detention, go through that due process, get a final order of removal and ignore it. Have a U.S. citizen child. Now you’re immune from the law. Now you’ve got amnesty. You don’t have to leave because ICE shouldn’t be looking for you. You don’t want to separate families.”

If that’s the message we send the rest of the world, you’re never going solve the immigration crisis on the border. People are going to keep coming to this country illegally. And more people are going to die during that journey because we’re enticing them. Look, it’s a hard line. It’s very controversial. And I say, “Look, we’ve got to go after that person with ten years [in the U.S.]. He’s a fugitive. He ignored a judge’s order.”

He’s a fugitive from what charge? That he crossed the border illegally?

He’s a fugitive from a federal judge saying, “You must leave this country. I order you removed from the United States.” And he ignored it.

But I’m trying to understand. The charge against them is that they came across the border illegally?


So that’s their crime?

When I say fugitive, that’s when someone’s been ordered removed under a judge’s order and refused to leave.

Well, in most cases are those people that have come here and been refused asylum because they couldn’t make a claim that convinced the judge?

Most of them [are] not asylum. But there’s a growing percentage of that in the last year. But most are other than asylum cases.

Or are these people that came across and that came across illegally, that being a crime, they were therefore found by ICE and deported for that crime?

The fugitives, the majority of them, the last I looked at the data, most were non-asylum claim people. These were people that entered illegally, were arrested and went through due process.

And that’s their crime? That they came across the border illegally.

And they ignored a judge’s order.

The judge’s order being to?

You must depart the United States. I’m ordering you removed. You have no right to be here. You violated the laws of this country. You must go home. The point I’m getting to is, people get angry that you arrest somebody [that’s] been here 10 years, with two U.S. citizen children. It’s sad.

It’s a part of the job that every law enforcement officer has to deal with. But if we don’t do that, then there’s no integrity in the entire system.

…And look, because ICE took a hard line on this, because I took a hard line on this, and we did remove that person that’s been here 10 years with two U.S. citizen children… we didn’t enjoy it. But we were doing our job. There’s a 45-year low on illegal crossings to the United States in the first year [of] this president. That’s not a coincidence, 45-year low because ICE was enforcing laws as written by Congress and going forward enforcing the [Immigration and Nationality Act].

Illegal border crossings have been coming down for quite a number of years. For almost 20 years… We’re at a 40-year low in the number of people crossing. And that began in 2000 with a peak of 1.6 million people coming across. And it’s now way down there. It’s not due to recent policies. It’s a trend over time.

No. I disagree with you.

Well, I’m looking at that graph there.

The trend has gone down each year in the last several years. But under the first year of Trump, it was significantly down because we sent a hard message that we’re going to enforce the law.

But it was coming down under Bush and under Obama.

It peaked down slightly. But the numbers of the data that ICE has, and border patrol supplies ICE, is that — a 45-year low under the first year of Trump, no other president saw that kind of low.

This is Customs and Border Protection data. And this shows 1.6 million people coming in the year 2000. It goes down in 2011 to less than 500,000 and has not really gone down significantly since then. I mean, there have been year-to-year changes. But I’m looking at — this is Border Protection data.

2014 is when we had the surge of families and children.

Right. You had unaccompanied minors and families coming across.

On the backside of [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] discussions, amnesty discussions, the numbers rose in certain categories. The data on Mexicans, Mexican illegal entries dropped significantly. And more Central Americans were entering through asylum claims. But I think this president has allowed ICE and border patrol to do their jobs.

…Under the Obama administration, if someone’s in a county jail, and we know… he’s illegally in the United States we weren’t even allowed to drop a detainer on him asking… to hold him for us unless he was convicted of that crime.

In my opinion — I’ve been doing this a long time, enforc[ing] immigration a long time — there’s no pre-requisite that you have to commit yet another crime to enforce immigration law. This president, President Trump, says, “We’re going to enforce the law.” The executive orders he issued, he could’ve wrote in one sentence, “You will now enforce the laws on the books,” which we’ve done. So then the message from these groups are, “Well–”

Immigration advocate groups?

Yeah. That, you know, you’re arresting the wrong people. You’re not prioritizing. So, they ignore the numbers. You’ve got numbers. Here’s a number. In the first year under Trump, if you look at who was removed, 89 percent of everybody we arrested and removed the first year, 89 percent of the people ICE arrested had a criminal history — either a criminal conviction, or pending criminal charges.

…It can go anywhere from a DUI to shoplifting, to murder…. It’s the same data we compared under the Obama administration and the Bush administration. So, people say, “What kind of crimes were they?” The same [type] of crimes we’re arresting people under the Obama administration, the same type of crimes that we arrested people under the Bush administration, same type of crimes we arrested people under the Clinton administration.

So, people want to say, “Oh, what type of crimes are they?” Same type of crimes under a Democrat’s administration. But my point is people want to ignore that data, say, “Well, you’re arresting more non-criminals than criminals.”

Yeah, but who are those? Of the non-criminals, over 60 percent of those non-criminals we found through the criminal justice system, which means there were pending criminal charges. We found them inside of a county jail, first of all…

But they hadn’t been convicted.

They’re sitting in a county jail, which probably means, number one, they’re illegal in the United States, number two, they’re in a county jail. So, when’s the last time you’ve been in a county jail? When’s the last time I’ve been in a county jail? Never. So, there’s already an issue.

Number one, like I said before, there’s no prerequisite you’ve got to commit yet another crime on top of entering the country illegally [for] us [to] enforce the law against you. But the point that some of the media misses is if you actually look at the data, and I’ll be exact, on the first year of Trump and me as the ICE director, 72 percent of everybody we arrested had a criminal conviction. If you looked [at] pending criminal charges, that goes to 89 percent, which shows nine out of every 10 people that ICE arrested had a criminal history.

But you don’t read that anywhere.

Okay, but when you look at the women coming across with children that we’ve seen in these last months, are you saying that 70 to 80 percent of those women are likely to have a criminal conviction?

No. No. I’m talking about ICE arrests in the interior of the United States…

Okay. We’re talking more broadly about what we’ve seen over the last several months, and that is a lot of women coming up with children. That’s different than what you’re talking about when you talk about who ICE is targeting. So–

That’s border arrests. I’m talking about interior arrests.

Right. And those border arrests are the issue before us right now.

It’s one of the issues.

Under the previous administration there was a policy of catch and release. What was wrong with catch and release?

There’s no consequence to illegal activity, there’s no deterrent.

Well, they have a court date.

But most don’t show up. Many don’t show up. And when they do show up they get a fine–

Most do show up.

Many don’t.

Most do.

But when they get an ordered removal, they don’t leave. And let’s talk about that. Under the last administration, we had the families coming across — [DHS] Secretary Jeh Johnson — who I respect greatly, okay? I thought the guy was a good secretary. When the crisis happened on the border, he said, “Okay, what’s the mitigation strategy guys?”

He brought me and the chief of Border Patrol in. And what were the options? We threw all the options out. And one of the options was [to] build family detention centers. We did that. Secretary Johnson took a lot of heat. But he did it. When we held them in detention long enough to see a judge, more than 20 days, which we have under court order now, most of them lost their cases.

We filled planes full of mother[s] and children, sent them back to Central America. The number of illegal crossing family members plummeted, plummeted, because we sent a strong message. Then, the Ninth Circuit said, “Now we’re going to treat accompanied children like we did unaccompanied children under [the] Flores settlement agreement.”

That word got out. And now look. Now you get arrested, the most you’ve got to do [is] 20 days in an ICE facility. The children get their vaccines. You get three meals a day. You get six sets of new clothes. You’re going to be released. That’s the price of doing business. So, these folks say, “You know what, I can do two weeks in an ICE detention facility.”

It’s a dorm setting. It’s a family detention. When we got the Ninth Circuit decision, the numbers went sky high. I did an affidavit in the litigation on that. And I said if this happens, if we’re going to treat accompanied children like unaccompanied children, the numbers are going to skyrocket because the word’s going to get down south we can’t detain them any more than 20 days. They’re going to come.

People said I was fear mongering. Guess what? Who was right? I was right… The numbers went up again. They knew, “Hey, I get arrested. I do a couple of weeks in ICE. Then I’m released.”

I took a lot of heat… “Oh, family detention is terrible.” And, you know, “These people have a right to be seen by a judge.” And so the ones that saw a judge got an order of removal. We did an operation called [Operation Border Guardian]. Well, we went [looking] for the women and children. They had due process and were ordered removed, and didn’t remove.

We sent teams out looking for them. I’ve got so much hate from… advocacy groups. “How dare you spend your limited resources looking for women and children when you should be looking for criminals?” So the argument was you have to give them due process. They have to see a judge. And because they don’t like the decision, now they want to forget about it.

Now that due process means nothing. And I’m not supposed to go arrest them. We did. We went looking for them. About 20 percent of them already had a U.S. citizen child, or were pregnant with a U.S. citizen, with a child. And the hate we took over that operation… was incredible.

Why is it incredible? I mean, we’re trying to come up with policy here that both protects the border but also shows heart for people that are fleeing violence or threats to their life.

You said someone’s trying to come up with policy. Who? I don’t see Congress doing anything.

The country has been attempting under the Obama administration they struggled to come up with a policy that would work. They settled on family detention. Then they ran into Flores… it’s been a challenge. Now this president has taken a different tack, one which we’ll talk about in a minute. But not all law enforcement enforces all laws. Marijuana laws are not enforced. Jay walking laws are not enforced. …You’re a former cop. You know that. You don’t enforce every law. You couldn’t.

I know where you’re going. And ICE doesn’t enforce every law either. Let’s go back to the numbers.

But when you have women and children, you say it’s incredible how much heat you got for chasing down women with children who had disobeyed a judge’s order. I mean, the New Yorker magazine did a study and found… 60 people went back to Central America and lost their lives as a result of having to return to the situation they were in.

So you want to blow the system up? You want to say, “Know what, give the peop—”

That’s an extreme answer to that.

No. No. No. No. It’s an exact answer to… what you’re saying is, “Let’s spend billions of dollars of the tax payer’s money on an immigration system. Let’s put them in front of a judge at great tax payer expense. And let’s ignore the judge’s order if we don’t like it.” There’s no integrity in the entire system.

And… ICE doesn’t enforce all laws. Look, if you believe the number of 11 to 12 million illegal aliens in this country, our record breaking year was FY12. We arrested and moved 409,000 people under the Obama administration. Almost twice as many people were removed last year. But nobody called to abolish ICE back then.

They call to abolish ICE now because it’s a Trump thing. This is anti-Trump rhetoric. But if we look at that, we removed 409,000 out of 11 million. Do the math. That’s 3 percent. So, we’re not arresting everybody. We’re not going out looking for everybody. And for the people that say, “Well, you’re just enforcing all the laws. And just arresting anybody you find.” No.

…When you look at who was a fugitive and re-entering the United States after being formally removed, which is a felony — if you look at criminal history, fugitive, re-entry, 92 percent of everyone we arrested last year fell in those three categories.

That’s almost perfect, perfect execution of policy. But you don’t read that story. People say, “Well, you’re arresting more non-criminals.” But if you look at what those non-criminals are, they’re fugitives, re-entrants. And let me tell you, when we talk about what’s the other eight percent that weren’t a priority?

They’re collateral, people we find while we’re arresting the target of an operation. We don’t do neighborhood raids. We don’t do sweeps. Every person we arrest, we know exactly where we’re going. We know exactly who we’re looking for. Do you know where most of the collateral arrests happen in the Unites States? In sanctuary cities. Why does that happen? Because if I can’t arrest a bad guy in a county jail, my job is to find him and arrest him. We’re going to go into the neighborhood or place and point where we’re likely going find others. So most of the collateral arrests — people that don’t fall within our priorities, but we find during the operation — we’re not going to turn a blind eye to them. We can’t…

…I dare politicians to do this — go into the immigrant community and ask them this question: Would you rather have ICE agents in your county jail or in your neighborhood? What do you think they’re going to say? Because most illegal aliens in this country, I said it earlier, other than entering the country illegally, are pretty law-abiding.

They don’t want child predators in their neighborhood. They don’t want people that’ve been arrested three times for DUI in their neighborhood. You know, they don’t want safety issues in their neighborhood either…

But the politicians are misinforming the American people by talking about sanctuary cities protecting the immigrant community. I just gave you a perfect example of how it doesn’t protect the immigrant community.

You talk about misinformation. There’s a lot of misinformation about what’s going on. There’s an impression by many Americans that illegal immigration is way up. That’s not true. It’s way down. It’s been going down since 2000. It’s going down since almost 20 years. We’re at a multi-decade low. …There is this notion that the border is out of control. And this has been fed by the rhetoric coming out of the White House.

No. No. No. You’re wrong.

Well, it’s not out of control.

We’ve been very clear. The issue on the border right now are the gang members, the children, the… unaccompanied children, and families. That’s the three categories that are up.

But most of these people come into the country — the vast majority are not coming in and committing violent crimes. And in fact, studies have shown, multiple studies have shown that they commit less crime than Americans who already live here.

No. See, that’s the wrong question to ask. I get that question all the time. Do illegal aliens commit more crime than Americans? That’s not the question. The question is how many crimes would not have occurred if that illegal alien wasn’t here committing it? So, you know, I don’t know if illegal aliens commit more crimes…

In May, you went to San Diego and stood next to Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions as he announced, officially, a policy that had effectively already been in place, or a decision to enforce the law that had already been in place for some time. Put me in that scene. Describe what that was like.

I was honored to stand next to Jeff Sessions… to announce this decision… surrounded by many American heroes wearing green, with one heckler that probably doesn’t know the first thing about serving his nation.

And I made it very clear in my comments during that press conference. People say, “Oh, this new policy’s terrible.” It’s not a new policy. DHS has not changed their policy on separating families. What we’re saying is if you cross the country illegally, between the ports of entry, you’re going to be prosecuted. We’d done it before. Now we’re just going to do zero tolerance. We made it clear.

But you hadn’t separated families.

We’ve been separating families for the 34 years I’ve been doing this job.

Yes, you’ve been separating families if there’s a threat to the welfare of the child…. This is a much broader application of this enforcement.

I agree. We do more of it.

You’re doing a lot more of it to the degree that it is qualitatively different.

We’ve already separated families. Under zero tolerance… we’re doing a lot more than we used to.

But let me make something clear just for the story. I had a protest at my house two weeks out. Signs to abolish ICE for separating families at the border. Let’s make it clear. The border patrol separates families at the border. ICE doesn’t do that.

I understand. You’re an internal enforcement agency.

Right. And, you know, I support what the border patrol’s doing because we’ve got to have some control. But I want to just make that clear. If you want to abolish ICE, then abolish it for the reasons it is doing something, not because another agency’s going something…

I understand. I’m talking about border patrol. But this decision to enforce the law much more strictly resulted in the separation of somewhere between 2,000 to 3,000 parents from their children. That was new. That was not something that was done on that scale, to that kind of immigrant coming across the border.

I agree.

You agree… The decision to separate children from their parents was an idea that came before the Obama administration. And they rejected that except in some circumstances.

No. I can tell you just the conversations I’ve been involved with at higher levels. There was an option we talked with Secretary Johnson about. He agreed on the family detention, build up the centers. He did not support family separations.

…So when Trump comes in — the AG, Sessions, agrees that you’re going to go forward with the policy — the enforcement community, not ICE, but the border patrol is going to start separating children routinely from their parents when they come across illegally?

I’d put it differently. I’d put down the attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer of this country, decided that he’s going to prosecute people who committed crimes.

How did you feel about the separation of children?

It’s unfortunate. Sad. But I put it on the parents…

Many came up and didn’t know.

If you want to claim asylum, go to a port of entry where you’re safe.

…It’s important the story gets this out. Go to a port of entry where it’s safe… Come through a U.S. government facility and claim asylum and you won’t be separated.

But how many of those people coming up know that?

Many of them.

How much money was spent by the Trump administration in Central America, in Mexico to educate people as to what the consequences were of coming up across the border with their children?

I don’t know the answer to that question. But I can tell you when family separation started, there was a huge media issue down in Central America, it’s a huge issue internationally, as you can guess. But people still make that choice. Now, I’m not going to go to a port of entry and not be separated from my child. I’m going to choose to enter the country illegally and have my child taken away…

But I can tell you the media covered it greatly in Central America. So the groups coming up now clearly know that you risk that…

You blame the parents for what’s happening to their children. But their children are innocent.

No, I’m not blaming the parents. Let’s be clear. I’m saying they deserve some of the responsibility here because they’ve made an intentional choice, entering the country illegally, knowing they’ll be separated…

Can we afford to separate children from their parents and be responsible for the trauma that’s caused to those children from those separations?

I think we have to enforce the laws. It’s unfortunate when someone breaks the law. They have to be separated from the child when they go to jail. A child can’t go to a … county jail with their parents…

But if you were fleeing violence or fleeing a situation where you couldn’t find work and you came up to the United States and you were separated from your children… Do you support separating their children from them and punishing the children, therefore?

I’m for enforcing the law. If I’m a parent and have a child, I’m would choose to go to a port of entry and claim asylum or claim whatever so I won’t be separated.

… What I’m getting at is — a horrible thing has happened to more than 2,000 families. Do you not sympathize with their situation?

Oh, absolutely, I’m a parent. It’s sad…

But, you know what, [the Department of Health and Human Services] takes care of a lot of kids… 10,000 kids in the custody of HHS or [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] that came up here as [unaccompanied minors]. Their parents or their sponsors, relatives, chose to hire a criminal organization to put that child in the trunk of a car or put them in the back of a tractor trailer to come to this country. They chose to separate themselves — that’s okay.

But when the government chooses to enforce the law and they separate the parents who have been prosecuted, just like every U.S. citizen person in this country gets separated when he gets arrested. But people want a different set of rules for an illegal alien.

Why do you think this has been condemned by so many people?

Because they don’t understand what’s going on. They don’t understand what this administration is trying to do. Again, it’s just not about enforcing laws, it’s about saving lives. It’s about sending that message down there that you go ahead and hire a criminal organization to come up here.

And I can’t tell you how many reports I’ve read about the women had been raped. Teenage girls take morning after pills when they’re smuggled as [unaccompanied minors], because they’re raped at 12, 13 years old. I’ve seen a five-year-old die in the back of a tractor trailer in his father’s arms…

And when people say, “Well, you’re a hardened guy, why do you take this hard?” Because if people saw — if you saw what I’ve seen in my 34 years, you’d take this serious[ly] too. So yeah, it’s unfortunate they’re separated. But we’re trying to send a message to stop.

…I’m not going to put blame on anybody here. The parents deserve some blame because they chose to enter the country illegally. They’re going to be arrested and any U.S. citizen that gets arrested gets separated from their child too.

The parent deserves some of the blame.

Did the government have to do this?

But you know who deserves most of the blame? Congress. Because months ago, I went to the Hill, along with the head of [Customs and Border Protection] and along with [Citizenship and Immigration Services] and told them what the loopholes were.

Fix the Flores settlement agreement. If… these people are really escaping fear, let’s detain them long enough to see a judge. Easy, that’s a legislative fix. Let’s raise the threshold for asylum…

Because Congress chose to ignore it, we were forced to make an operational decision to control that border. And it’s unfortunate that families are separated. But we have to enforce the law.

…It’s up to Congress to fix this system. And Congress can save lives. People have died because Congress refuses to fix the loopholes. They’re well aware of what those loopholes are. But they’re too busy putting politics ahead of public safety, politics ahead of border security, politics ahead of families.

…I have here that up to 75 percent of non-detained migrants attend their immigration hearing.

I find that hard to believe. I don’t know where you get that data from, but that sounds high to me…

I think that’s Justice Department.

I’m not familiar with that number. Is it a EOIR number? Executive Office of Immigration Review? Of course, I ask that question and number two, it isn’t about who shows up to the hearing. It’s who abides by the decision of the court. We have over half a million, over 500,000 people walking around in this country illegally that had the due process, [have] been ordered to remove, [and] they didn’t leave. Over half a million.

Have you had personal conversations with [White House adviser Stephen] Miller or with Sessions or Trump about the policy or about the decision to ramp up enforcement that you can recall?

I have had [conversations] with all of them about ramping up enforcement…

What kind of questions did the president ask you?

Well, I’m not going to talk about the conversation I had with the president. What I’m saying is the president issued a series of executive orders to me as the acting ICE director to do my job, which people don’t want to understand. I got a Presidential Rank [Award] from President Obama.

I know.

…Because I executed the mission within the framework he provided me, that was my job. …Obama had executive actions, Trump had executive orders, different mission. But my job, again, [was] execute the mission within the framework provided to me, which is money, resources, and policies sent down to me by the… White House. And that’s exactly what President Trump has asked us to do under the executive orders and we’re enforcing the law.

When you were with Sessions in San Diego, when he made the announcement on May 7th of this year, did you expect the reaction that you got when he began talking about separating children from parents?


You did? So, did you have a conversation with the attorney general before he made that statement as to what you might expect?

I’ve had many conversations with the attorney general. But I think we all know — he was a prosecutor for many years — that when you come up with a policy like that there’s going to be questions, there’s going to be people that don’t agree with that.

Did you anticipate the controversy?

Oh, yeah.

And what did you say?

I don’t think I had that discussion with him, but I knew the issue of separating of families and people that cross illegally would have some pushback from certainly from the left and certainly from the advocacy groups and many on the Hill.

It’s gone beyond that. When you heard the tape that ProPublica published of the children wailing, what was your reaction?

I didn’t hear the tape.

Oh, come on.

I did not hear the tape. I did not hear the tape.

I can’t believe that.

I’ve heard many children cry in my 34 years. I don’t need to hear children cry…

I would think that we owe it to the children to hear what they have to say.

No, what I’m saying is I don’t have to have a tape to hear children cry. It’s sad, it’s unfortunate. The parent takes some responsibility in that, Congress takes a bunch of responsibility in that.

I’ve seen a lot of sad things in my career… People think we’re cold, we’re heartless, and that stuff like this doesn’t bother us. We all have a heart…

Did the president, do you think, make a mistake when he issued his executive order on June 18th?

No. The president says a lot of words, he could’ve said it in one sentence, “Enforce laws Congress enacted. That is your job.”

When he decided to rescind the decision to separate children from their parents, he issued an executive order saying, “We’re not going to separate.” How did you react to that?

I was puzzled. Because, I think in that short time the families were separated we saw a decrease in families coming to the border.

Should he have not made that executive order?

I’m not going to question the president. You know, he made that decision. And I’ll do what he orders us to do and I’ll stop doing what he tells us to stop doing.

You’ll follow orders.

I think that short period of time had an effect on illegal crossings. They were down 17 percent in that month. I think if we would have stuck with it, it would have gone down further. But the president has his reasons. He certainly privy to meetings with people on the Hill and people in other countries that I am not privy too. So, he makes that decision, I support him…

Can I play [the ProPublica audio] for you?


It’s a young girl who asks to call her aunt. She wants to call her aunt. She has the number memorized.


What do you think?

It tugs at the heartstrings, sure.

…Regardless of why they come here, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of whether or not some of them have committed some crime, separating the children punishes the children. How can you not condemn that?

Look, I’ve seen lots of terrible things in my 34 years. But we have to address the border.

I mean, again, Congress has a job to do and fix the loopholes, stop enticing people to come to this country illegally. I’ve said it many times, illegal immigration is not a victimless crime. You just played the tapes for me, that child is a victim. But the parent deserves some of that blame.

Our border is not being overrun at this point.

The border is not under control. We’re a sovereign country, we have a right to control our borders. The same criminal organizations that smuggled these children, the same criminal organizations that smuggled these families are the same organizations that smuggle drugs, they smuggle guns, and… do harm to this country. So until we control this border and shut down these transactional criminal organizations, this country is at risk.

We’ve been fighting drug crime for a long time without very much success.

And we’re in New York City, the place of the most horrendous terrorist attacks this country has ever seen, at the hands of some people that were here illegally.

But these people are not coming in as terrorists.

How do you know that? … I’ve seen intelligence reports where people have intended to come into this country that wanna do this country harm. And that’s because the border is out of control. When this border agent is busy with this family you don’t know what’s going on here down here, down the road, where he’s tied up with this family.

…So we have to control the border. So we have to enforce the law. Congress can fix these loopholes so there’s not so many victimized children. We’ve asked them to address it, they can address it. But the answer isn’t to ignore the law, throw our hands up in the air, and just let everybody come in and make an asylum claim, that doesn’t hold up in court, and one’s gonna look for you. If that’s– again, I’ll say this, if that’s a message we wanna send to the rest of the world– we’re not gonna take our immigration laws seriously?

If you hide out long enough in the United States and have a U.S. citizen child, you’re not going to be made to leave? We’re never going to solve the border crime, we’ll keep bankrolling these criminal organizations. And this country’s going to be in trouble. We have to control our border. And I don’t think we’re wrong [in] what we have to do to control it.

Even if that means separating children?

That’s unfortunate. I’m a father. That’s the first time I heard that tape… I listened to it, it definitely — it’s sad. It’s very sad. And it’s unfortunate. Illegal immigration is not a victimless crime.

It had to happen?

That parent made a conscious choice to come in the country illegally. That parent, if he would have went to port of entry, that child would be with that aunt, not separated.

But that aunt may have been fleeing violent threats to her life.

Still go to port of entry and make the same claim.

Maybe she didn’t know.

If you go to a port of entry you can make the same legal claim, get the same legal protections, and be much safer at a port of entry then crossing illegally.

…Many of those people coming across are turned away and told to basically take a number. That there are no beds, “We can’t process you.”

All right. So, let me ask you this question. They are fleeing violence in El Salvador. They’re in Mexico. The reason they fled is no longer existing. The asylum is clear. Get away from the country you fear, you’re in Mexico.

Much of this isn’t about really claiming asylum, it’s about getting into the United States. Because you’re fearing something in El Salvador, you’re not in El Salvador anymore.

…Yeah, but they’re not in a safe place [in Mexico].

…Come on, we remove people to Mexico every day. …You can’t say, “I’m fleeing violence in El Salvador, but the only way I’m going to be safe is being in the United States.” They’ve already crossed through Mexico, another sovereign country, a democracy. They can live there peacefully. You know, millions of people live in Mexico in peace.

You know this, the Mexicans do not have control of the Zetas and the other gangs and the other cartels. And the police are notoriously corrupt. It’s not a safe place for somebody that doesn’t have papers and somebody that’s fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras.

Mexico is not as safe as the United States… But the whole point of the claim of asylum is you’re escaping a specific threat and you now are not in that specific threat.

…You’re crossing Mexico at great risk. You’re not a legal citizen of Mexico, you’re coming illegally into Mexico and crossing Mexico. You’ve got to get to the United States before you can make an asylum claim that holds any water at all.

Oh, Mexico has accepted tens of thousands of asylums.

They deport much more people.

Well, this country is the most giving country in the world. We accept more refugees in this country than all [other] countries combined.

And it hasn’t hurt us.

No, it hasn’t hurt us.

We’re all related to refugees.

But they came through a legal process.

We’re a nation of immigrants.

But they came through legal process. You can’t come into this country, violate its laws, get told you lost your case. …If the final decision means nothing and those decisions are not executed, then there’s not integrity in the entire system. Blow it up, open the border, and let everybody in, because there’s no consequence, there’s no returns. If we keep going down the road we’re going down — open the border up. Let them all in.

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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