Transcript: Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan on "Face the Nation," May 19, 2019

Acting DHS chief says administration won't send migrants to Florida

The following is a transcript of the interview with Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan that aired Sunday, May 19, 2019, on "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN: We begin today with the acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan who also serves as the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Welcome to the program.

ACTING SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY KEVIN McALEENAN: Good to be here, thank you.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So first off we're hoping you can clarify this--

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Sure.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --policy. On Thursday, this is what we heard from the sheriff in Palm Beach County:  

*TAKE SOT*

PALM BEACH COUNTY SHERIFF RIC BRADSHAW: Earlier this week the chief of Border Patrol operations out of Miami informed us that their intentions were to bring about a thousand people every month up into the Broward and Palm Beach County area, 500 to- to each county. And that these people were going to be brought from the El Paso area that have crossed the border illegally.

*END SOT*

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is this still being considered in Florida?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: So let me tell you what's happening on the border. We're seeing 4,000 families a day and- and single adults, unaccompanied children crossing unlawfully between ports of entry. That means CBP right now in Border Patrol stations and at ports of entry, has about 16,000 people in custody. The system is full. We've been very clear about that. So what we're trying to do is plan to be able to manage that capacity safely, to bring people where we can process them efficiently. As you noted flights have gone on to San Diego where there is a high capacity border patrol sector. And as a planning factor we're looking at all options for being able to detain people, but frankly I respect the sheriff's concerns, Governor DeSantis, Senator Rubio. Communities all over this country are extremely generous but they're not ready to receive this flood of immigration. We need to have a system that works at the border, where we're able to prevent people from crossing unlawfully and return them effectively. And that's why we've asked Congress for help.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So to be clear, is Florida still being considered?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: No. We're using the Southwest border sectors for additional capacity.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And it will not be in the future?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: No I don't believe so. We're- we're working with- with secretary of defense to increase our capacity for facilities right now. We're also working with Mexico to make sure that people can wait in Mexico for their hearings as well. So--

MARGARET BRENNAN: So--

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: --we're going to be focusing on those options.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So- so can you explain what changed? We laid out the timeline.

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: On Thursday local officials are told by your agency that this is happening. This morning you tell me it's not.

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: It's not because we looked at it from a planning perspective. What's prudent here? We do have stations in Florida. We have stations on the northern border. They're very small stations. They have a few agents that are busy patrolling their areas. There wasn't going to be an effective use of resources. But yeah, we had to look at all options. When you have sixteen thousand people in custody and facilities designed for many fewer, you've got to look at any planning factor you can.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And so to be clear because in that statement that we read, it was blamed on inaccurate reports in the media.

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: So the- the reports in the media were that flights had already occurred. Those were not accurate.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So that's the part that you're saying the media was inaccurate on.

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Correct.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Flights had already occured.

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Correct.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But do you acknowledge that they were officials from your own agency who said that this was indeed going to happen in Florida--

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: U.S. Customs--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --and that cities, Detroit, Buffalo, and Miami.

ACTING SEC McALEENAN: and Border Protection did notify- U.S. Customs and Border Protection did notify officials locally in those areas that they were looking at the possibility of doing this. That's correct.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Okay. And those cities are also off the table now?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Correct.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Okay. And this decision was made when?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: The- the commissioner- the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection made that decision.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yesterday?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Okay. So those communities now will no longer be expected to take in some of the migrants that you say are overwhelming facilities at the border?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Yeah. That- that's right. But I think we should really stay focused on what's actually happening on the- on the border. It's a border security and a humanitarian crisis. These flows are unprecedented. They're creating dramatic challenges for law enforcement professionals trying to manage it. But we also are talking about a situation where children are at risk, where children are being smuggled, where children are in the hands of some of the most violent criminal organizations in this hemisphere. And we haven't had a solution from Congress to stop that. The administration has put forward three approaches this- the last two weeks, a supplemental to help us manage it, 4.5 billion dollars so we can create the facilities to protect children in custody and provide medical care, provide the processing and provide effective repatriation for those that don't have a right to stay in the U.S. We've worked on an emergency approach that would address the two key drivers of this crisis, the pull factors for families and the pull factors for unaccompanied children. That's the Chairman Graham bill that was introduced on Wednesday. And then of course in your open, you had the president talking about the more comprehensive immigration approach that would reform the legal system as well as address those vulnerabilities in the- in the unlawful crossings.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But in the immediate sense you're saying that there's a crisis at the border of almost a hundred thousand a month.

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Correct.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What happens to these people now that you're not putting them in other detention facilities elsewhere in the country?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: So we're- we've improved our processing. We're working with the secretary of defense to add additional facilities in the border area for single adults that will allow us to increase our ability to hold people safely. We're building soft-sided facilities for families for their processing so that they have more space, and they're a more appropriate setting--

MARGARET BRENNAN: That takes time.

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Yeah. We're doing all these things simultaneously. We're in the- we're in the two to three weeks out from doing those. In the meantime, we are moving people to sectors that have higher capacity like San Diego, as you noted.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And in that two to three week period you said, well what are the standards going to be like in these facilities? I know you've raised concern--

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Yeah.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --about being able to provide for the welfare of these people.

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: I- I've been raising concerns since last June about the border security and humanitarian crisis. We went to the border in March and had a press conference when we were over 14,000 in custody. We're now over 16,000 in custody. So yes, I'm very concerned about the conditions. These are not appropriate facilities for families and children in particular. These are police stations built for single adults. And that's why we've asked Congress for more resources to address it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You've asked for- that four and a half billion--

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Correct.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --that you said there.

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Correct.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What's driving this wave of immigration?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Yeah, so the number one factor driving this are- are the pull factors in our system, the vulnerabilities in our legal framework that tell a family that you'll be allowed to stay, you'll be released and allowed to stay. The telling unaccompanied child that you'll be able to join your family here, your parent who might already be here unlawfully. We need to change that dynamic. We need to change it quickly. The other main factor is that there are challenging situations in Central America. There's poverty and economic opportunity gaps that are stark, and we need to work on both sides of that problem in Central America, with Capitol Hill to change our legal framework, and on the border where we're increasing security significantly, both through additional border barrier, partnering with the Department of Defense, and adding agents and authors and technology.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Have you then told the president that you disagree with his suggestion to cut foreign aid to those three main countries?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: The president's looking for accountable partners and programs that have a return on investment for American interests. I think if we can find those programs that are working, that are addressing the- the push factors from migration I think we're going to be able to continue to partner. I'm going to be down there in- in two weeks in Central America working with my counterparts at- at the Ministry of Interior and Public Safety level, talking about increasing border security on the Guatemala-Honduran border and the Guatemalan-Mexican border, starting at the source of origin with the smugglers that are- are enticing people into the cycle to address their security concerns.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Back to what Americans can expect to be happening in their communities. The president has said on at least three different occasions, as recently as April 27th, that he wants to ship migrants into sanctuary cities. This has injected this idea of politics into that. This came from the president, himself. Let's listen.

*Take SOT*

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you support that?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: So as we've already talked about we are- we are balancing operationally the processing of people at the border. We have sent flights to California. California is a sanctuary state, by law. So that's technically correct. The other part is that the ten of--

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you do support sending them to sanctuary cities?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: --the top eleven destinations for- for immigrants that are released in the U.S., they're going to sanctuary cities because that's a magnet. They're providing an incentive to come live in those areas, and that's what's happening.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But your agency transporting people to these cities--

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Our- our transportation--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --is that going to happen?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: --is based on operational necessity, capacity to process safely. That's what we're doing.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, "no," is the answer--

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Correct.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --to the question. Okay. So when the president speaks about all of these immigration changes, I know you are frustrated that there is not more immediacy in terms of Congress--

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --actually acting. When the president went to the Rose Garden, though, a lot of what he laid out was about legal immigration, and it requires Congress to comply--

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --and to be a partner. There was really no outreach to concerns Democrats have about things like DACA protections and the like. How do you get Congress to do what you're asking them?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: So first of all the president in the Rose Garden made a clear distinction between this broader effort that's going to take some time working with Congress. In the immediate bill that he's asked for he referenced chairman Graham, Judiciary Committee in the Senate, his approach that's on the table right now targeting the two main drivers for this flow. So that- that's out there, that's ready to be negotiated and- and- and hopefully passed. We also have asked for the supplemental two weeks ago. It's a- there's a lot of money that we need right now to take care of people that are crossing the border appropriately and make sure we're repatriating those that don't have a right to stay in the U.S. We- we need Congress's help for both of those right now.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. But the four-and-a-half billion you're saying you need right now, the rest is a- is an ideal? You've got an incredibly difficult job--

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --on one of the most emotionally fraught issues there is. The Washington Post reported that you had threatened to quit because of a- a knife fight over immigration with hardliner Steven Miller. Does you being here today mean you won that fight?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: Look, I'm not going to talk about rumors or any alleged internal conversations. What I see is a cabinet team that's pulling in the same direction to make this crisis mitigated. I'm working with the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the attorney generals, Health and Human Services secretary. I met with all of them in the first several weeks. The White House is supporting our initiatives. We have a robust strategy of action. We've put forward a legislative component. We've changed our dynamic at the border with increasing MPP, with prosecuting child smugglers at the border. We're- we're moving out. We're acting with a lot of support from the White House and the cabinet. I'm not worried about alleged internal conversations.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you didn't threaten to quit?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: I did not threaten to quit. No.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You will still be the person trying to lead this charge?

ACTING SEC. McALEENAN: I'm going to work on solving this problem as long as I have that opportunity. No question.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Alright. Thank you very much for coming in and for underscoring the immediacy of this.