On Tuesday, President Trump told the nation there is a "humanitarian crisis, a crisis of the heart, and a crisis of the soul" on the U.S. southern border, in his Oval Office address.
And, in fact, there is a humanitarian crisis growing at the southern border. For example, thousands of migrant families crowded into bare detention facilities that weren't designed to hold women and children. But a Department of Homeland Security official recently told the New York Times that the crisis is being caused by the Trump administration's own policy.
Thursday, the president visited the border. So we wanted to get a detailed look at what's actually happening on the ground there.
Among our guests on the show was Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents Texas’ 28th Congressional District, an area South of San Antonio that ends at the U.S.-Mexico border. He is also a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
The number of detainees that Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities are housing right now has reached the highest point ever. Some 45,000 single adults and family units, and in fact it's so overcrowded that ICE is now sometimes dropping off people at bus stations. Some 600 migrants dropped off in the last full week of December with no advanced planning. What are you seeing or hearing about what's going on in your district?
"ICE, or if it's the nonprofits that hold the kids, the unaccompanied kids, just do not have sufficient detention beds. So therefore, if there's not enough sufficient beds, what they do is they generally drop them off at bus stations, and then at the bus stations they will call family members or friends or whoever they might have in other parts of the United States. They'll send them the money to buy the tickets, and from there they’ll take off and wait for their court hearing at a later time. As you know most most of the time, it might take three to four years before they have a court hearing. That generally is what's happened under many administrations; Obama, Bush and, of course, now under Trump.
"The only difference is, Trump is trying to hold as many people to 'get rid of the catch and release.' So, he's holding a lot more people there and the detention beds or the nonprofit's facilities are just really completely full. And that's why they're still allowing people, where they take them out and drop them off at bus stations, so they can find family members in other parts of the country."
"If you want to stop drugs, modernize those ports of entry. Put the personnel, put the X-ray machines, and that's how you're going to stop drugs."Rep. Henry Cuellar
Democrats are adamantly opposed to any funding for a border wall, but is there a way to appropriate the $800 million the Department of Homeland Security says it needs at the border?
“Absolutely. And, you know, we've we've done that. We've provided money for space and for medical officers. We've done a lot of that in the past. But the problem is, is that the President doesn't really want to hear any of that. He just wants to focus on the border wall, because his campaign promise was to build a wall. And the other part of his campaign promise was to let Mexico pay for it. So that's what he's obsessed with. That's what he's focusing on. He thinks that the only border security is by having a wall. And he's just wrong. And what we need to do is look at personnel, technology, make sure we have the right practices, because a lot of times, the drug organizations and the smuggling organizations will change tactics and we need to change tactics there. That's what we need to focus on.
“Let me give you an example of what's happening right now. Border Patrol, under the Obama administration, we were high at 21,400-and-something, almost 21,500. Right now, we're short about 2,000 men and women in Border Patrol. We're at about 19,400. So what does the administration do? They put out a contract for $297 million to help them hire Border Patrol. Well, they just awarded, out of that contract, they just let go $14.8 million. You know how many border patrol [agents] they hired with that $14.8 million? Two of them. I don't know that one of them is Captain America, or what's so special. But if you're going to spend $14.8 million, I’d rather spend that money on retention bonuses so we can hire and retain those Border Patrol, and that's what we need to focus on.
"A lot of that technology, the aerostat, the drones, the cameras, that the military used, if it works for the military, it should work us. So again, we've got to be smart on how we do this. [President Trump] talked about stopping drugs. Most drugs will come through ports of entry, not in between ports, so if you want to stop drugs, modernize those ports of entry. Put the personnel, put the X-ray machines, and that's how you're going to stop drugs."
On migrant families: In November, there was the highest number ever, more than 20,000 family units. Democrats, including you, were very critical of the administration's treatment of these families. But what is the Democratic plan or solution to stem the influx of parents with children or to deal with these migrant families?
"Look, I live on the border and I've seen how the typical profile of somebody coming across has changed. Twenty or 30 years ago, it was a young man that was coming over to come work, get money, send the money back to the family, go back and then come back again, almost like a temporary guest worker, if I can say that.
"We are now seeing family units are coming over here. So, the profile has changed. So we've got to ask ourselves: What's happening in those countries? So back in 2014, 2015, [the House Appropriations Committee], we added, and I pushed very hard for this, to put $750 million a year to help the Central American countries so we can go ahead and provide security, create more jobs over there so less people will come over here.
"What's happening right now? Out of that money that's been appropriated, there's about $800 million dollars that are still in the pipeline that the administration hasn’t let go. They cut down the funding for those countries. If there's a problem with those three countries, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, we need to keep working with those countries so less people come over here. Finally, the last thing we did, back in 2015, we added $80 million to help Mexico secure the southern border. They were stopping at that time 220,000 people a year that were coming over to the U.S. that Border Patrol would have never seen because they were stopped over there.
"My point is this: Either you play defense on the 1-yard-line called the U.S.-Mexico Border, where we spent $18 billion a year, or we play defense on the 20-yard-line and put a little bit of money in Central America of Mexico to address some of those core issues."
The dates you're giving me are appropriations that were made during the Obama Administration. Are you saying that the money wasn't adequately or appropriately used even under the Obama administration?
"Well, they took a long time to beget that. But every year, we started off at $750 million for Central America under the Obama administration. And we have a lot of meetings with those countries, with the presidents, with the ambassadors. We finally agreed to where the money was going to be spent with those three countries. Then, when the Trump administration came in, they lowered that down from $750 million a year. They lowered it down to $595 million. Even though we wanted more, the Republicans controlled everything. Now we're going to change that. Now we're in.
"Under the Trump administration, there has been money that has been obligated for the last couple of years that has already been appropriated and there's about $800 million dollars in the pipeline that we can get over to them. And I've talked to the president of Honduras, I've talked to other ambassadors from those three countries, and they're saying, 'When are we going to get the resources?' We're trying to address the situation here. But there's $800 million, it's still stuck. So what I did, I put a spending plan so they can release that money, all those resources, down to those areas and address the economy, and the security issues in those three Central American countries."
"The border crime rate for murders is lower than the national crime rate."Rep. Henry Cuellar
So that's a big picture about dealing with the issues in the Central American countries themselves. But once again, regarding the family units that are already here at the border, do Democrats have a plan to assist or to alleviate this problem?
“Yes. And in fact, in Appropriations, I've added language and resources to make sure that if anybody is detained, that we take care of those people, that families are not separated and to get immigration judges so they can get the hearings as soon as possible, so people will know if they're going to stay or go back depending on their asylum or credible fear.
"We've done that and we intend to do more. So we have a plan. The only thing, our plan for border security doesn't include a wall. The president keeps talking about a crisis over there and I have to say this, the latest FBI statistics, and I do this every year, the national murder rate in the United States is 5.3 murders per 100,000. The border crime rate for murders is lower than the national crime rate. So, when the president visits McAllen, the murder rate there in McAllen is about 4.8 murder rate, which is lower than the national crime rate. Washington, D.C., where the president’s at, the murder rate is 16.7 murder rate. So it’s a lot more dangerous here in Washington, D.C. — and I'm not talking about politics, I'm talking about the murder rate — then where he's going to be in McAllen, Texas. It's safer there and that's the safest place he’s going to be at when he visits the border."
Alex Schroeder and David Marino adapted this interview for the web.