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Nielsen Defends Policy That Splits Undocumented Families; Separation Of Undocumented Parents And Kids Fuels Outrage. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired June 18, 2018 - 11:00   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Just minutes from now, we're expecting to hear from both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Trump as they face fresh bipartisan blowback now over the administration's zero-tolerance immigration policy.

Here is what we know right now. The government has confirmed its policy has separated at least 2,000 children from their families at the border. Those children, some toddlers, are being held in detention facilities. Just minutes ago, the president's homeland security secretary defended the policy.


KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, DHS SECRETARY: Past administrations may have done so, but we will not. We do not have the luxury of pretending that all individuals coming to this country as a family unit are in fact a family. We have to do our job, we will not apologize for doing for our job. We have sworn to do this job. This administration has a simple message, if you cross the border illegally, we will prosecute you.


BOLDUAN: But, the secretary tweeted just yesterday, we don't have a policy of separating families at the border, period. Also, this morning, new criticism over that policy, period.

Former first lady, Laura Bush, issue a scathing condemnation in a "Washington Post" opinion piece, writes this in part, "This zero- tolerance policy is cruel, it is immoral, and it breaks my heart."

Even the current first lady is weighing in a rare statement on policy that says this, "we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart." Read into that what you will.

More Republican lawmakers are pushing back on the false claim that Democrats are solely to blame here. Here is what Senator Lindsey Graham said to me on Friday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: President Trump could stop this policy with a phone call.

BOLDUAN: He doesn't seem to acknowledge that.

GRAHAM: Well, he can't. I'll go tell him. If you don't like families being separated, you can tell DHS stop doing it.


BOLDUAN: A whole lot to get to now. CNN's Abby Phillip at the White House. Abby, it seems from the administration angle, they're having a hard time getting on the same page. Either the policy exists, or it doesn't. Either it is law, or it isn't. Either -- pick it or it isn't. Where are they now?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, Kate. They are all over the map on this issue. First, denying that there was even a policy of separating children from their families and now seeming to acknowledge with such a policy exists, but saying that they're not going to apologize for the practice in part.

Because, according to Kirstjen Nielsen, the DHS secretary, they want Congress to change the law. Listen to what she said just a few moments ago, about where the administration is on their policy of zero tolerance at the border.


NIELSEN: If you make a false immigration claim, we will prosecute you. If you smuggle illegal aliens across an extraordinarily dangerous journey, we will prosecute you. But I have also made clear you do not need to break the law of this country by entering illegally to claim asylum. If you are seeking asylum, go to a port of entry.


PHILLIP: For several days now, President Trump has also been using this issue to push Democrats to negotiating table on other immigration priorities, suggesting that Democrats were responsible for this policy change.

But the truth is, Kate that in the past, past presidents have faced this dilemma and they have chosen to do other things, they have chosen not to separate families in this way. Now nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their families in six weeks and while Kirstjen Nielsen said don't believe the press, that these children are being treated well.

These images of children sleeping on pads on the floors, in chained gated cages are really striking and causing a lot of Republicans to balk at the prospect this could continue for weeks and months to come -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Abby, thank you so much. We can hear from Jeff Sessions, we can hear from the president this hour. Let's see what they have to say about it now.

Joining me right now, two Democratic members of Congress, Congressman Filemon Vela, he's in the border town of Brownsville, outside a converted Walmart that now houses nearly 1,500 immigrant children. He's about to tour that facility.

And with me here in New York is Congressman Jerry Nadler, he toured an ICE detention facility in New Jersey just this weekend. Congressman, first to you, some of your colleagues down there, they have met with some resistance getting into some of the facilities. Do you know what you're going to be able to see today?

REPRESENTATIVE FILEMON VELA (D), TEXAS: Well, behind me is Southwest Keys, which is a contractor with the Health and Human Services. Behind us here are about 1,500 unaccompanied minors, 10 percent of those kids are the children who have been separated from their families. They operate other shelters down here. And so, these 2,000 children who have been separated from their parents are in shelters just like this.

[11:05:02] BOLDUAN: This is your district. Former First Lady Laura Bush speaking out this morning says, she's a Texas native. She understands the push and pull of illegal immigration, but it's still immoral in her view. Congressman Vela, what do her words mean to you?

VELA: Well, what we are seeing in America right is the American dream turned into an American nightmare for these 2,000 kids and counting because this is not over yet. The solution here is very simple. The president is to initiate his zero-tolerance policy with a stroke of a pen, he can do away with it.

If there was ever a time to put politics aside, this is the time to do it. The idea that in the United States of America in 2018, the United States government has taken away small children from their parents is just inhumane. It's immoral. That's not who we are about.

BOLDUAN: Congressman Nadler, you made a surprise visit along with some of the members to an ICE Detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey this weekend. You met with men who have been separated from their families. What did you learn?

REPRESENTATIVE JERRY NADLER (D), NEW YORK: Well, first of all, we've learned that we were kept waiting for almost two hours. This is a privately-run facility and they couldn't make any decisions about anything until someone from ICE arrives.

That doesn't (inaudible) anything good about anything surprising happens inside if someone get sick or whatever. But what we've learned was we met a number of the detainees whom we had had prior legal authorization from their attorneys to do so.

And we've heard their stories. We were not able to tour the facility. We saw a tiny interrogation room and then these people, one of them presented himself at the border, a port of entry with his child, perfectly legally and he was then arrested and had his child taken away from him anyway. BOLDUAN: So, that contradicts directly what the homeland security secretary just said, go to a port of entry --

NADLER: Well, first of all, we know the people are -- that they are long waiting times of days at a port of entry signals that ports of entry are just telling people coming in some other time, don't come here now.

Now people are fleeing violence, these people have been crossing deserts. They've been fleeing violence. They are desperate. You can't just tell them come again and have them camp on the border. So, they then course at a different point.

But he -- this fellow had his 12-year-old taken away from him at a point of entry. Another person arrived in -- no, he has no idea where his son or daughter, child is, or when -- or if he'll ever see them again.

Another person arrived at the border and the border patrolmen immediately said, well, this is not your kid. He says I got a birth certificate, take a blood test whatever. They said he wasn't -- let them go and they went to sleep.

And 3:00 in the morning, they came to seize the child away from him in the middle of the night and he doesn't know where the -- and then he was shipped them from Texas eventually to Elizabeth, and he has no idea where this child is or when -- or if he'll ever see the child again.

BOLDUAN: I've heard a couple of things, multiple things coming out of the White House, right. You've heard from the president on Twitter and interviews that he hates the idea of separating families --

NADLER: Then let him stop it.

BOLDUAN: Lindsey Graham said the same thing. He could do it over the phone call, but the president and the administration and the White House continues to say Democrats stop pulling these political stunts of showing up at ICE detention facility showing up at the border, come to the table, and let's make a deal.

I just want to play for you what one White House spokesman, Hogan Gidley, said today. Listen to this, Congressman.


HOGAN GIDLEY, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: Everyone needs to put down their swords and stop political grandstanding on the Democratic -- in the Democratic Party, getting ready for midterms and instead focusing on actually fixing the problem.

Instead of going back to the districts -- instead of going back to their districts, and basically saying this is a bad problem, look at these horrible pictures, they could go back to their districts and say we stood up for you guys when we fixed the problem, but they won't do that because they want to play politics. (END VIDEO CLIP)

NADLER: That takes nerve. They set up the problem. This problem is entirely an unofficial problem started in mid-April when Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, sent the memo for zero-tolerance policy and called it zero-tolerance policy. He said we're doing this in order to present -- to have a deterrent effect.

We're going to terrorize people, take the kids away, so that other people who are fleeing violence will think twice about coming here. Now, then it is the Democrats' fault because not that we started this policy, the president did this policy.

But it is the Democrats fault because the president says if you want know stop torturing these people, if you want me to stop separating families and taking kids away you got to go to other things, other terrible proposals on immigration.

You got to agree that people who are waiting legally on line to join their brothers and sisters in the united states with -- for 20 years, get wiped out you got to agree to $25 billion for the border wall.

BOLDUAN: But Congressman, welcome to Washington. I mean, lever let a good crisis go to waste.

[11:05:06] NADLER: No. Create a crisis, torture people and then say we're going to blackmail you to stop -- that's not proper. They're holding these kids hostage. That's not a proper way of negotiating.

BOLDUAN: Are you introducing the companion legislation?

NADLER: We'll be doing that tomorrow.

BOLDUAN: What does it say?

NADLER: It says you can't separate these kids. It has a number of other provisions, but basically it says you can't separate the kids --

BOLDUAN: If you get that bill to the floor and there is an amendment for border wall, will you back it?

NADLER: I might back the border wall, but by the way, not in the way that they want it in the bill, because the way the border wall that they say in the bill is if any future Congress takes a penny away from the border wall, anybody who has been waiting all these dreamers, these DACA kids who have been waiting, it will take them 23 years to get a path to citizenship and they can be wiped out depending on the action of the future of Congress.

BOLDUAN: Have you talked to the -- have you talked to the majority, any Republicans --

NADLER: They won't talk to us.

BOLDUAN: Come on.

NADLER: They have been negotiating the Dreamer bill.

BOLDUAN: You haven't talked to Goodlatte about this.

NADLER: I talked to Goodlatte. He won't talk about it. He's got his position. Now, remember what they have been doing. The Republicans are saying we want to pass a bill without any Democratic votes. That's why they have been negotiating the bill only within the confines of the Republican conference. We have a bill that could easily pass the House. All the Democrats and probably a third of the Republicans, they won't let that to the floor.

BOLDUAN: Let us see if this shakes it up with these images continuing to come out. Congressman Vela, just a final question to you, Republican Congressman Will Hurd, he's opposed to this policy as we're looking at it right now, he suggested this morning, I don't have time to play it, but essentially an alternative to the detention facilities, keep families together, keep them on house arrest until claims can be dealt with as policy questions are going on. Would you support that?

VELA: Well, I don't think we need house arrest. Under the Obama administration back in June 2017, they began a program that would essentially allow these families to live together and they -- they would report back to the asylum courts.

When the Trump administration took over, they got rid of that problem and we never got to see the OIG report. I want to add one thing, you know, we don't need legislation to change what is going on right now. All we need is for the president to rescind the zero-tolerance policy and these kids can be back with their parents.


NADLER: That's exactly right. And talk of legislation is -- whether border wall or anything else is just to distract attention.

BOLDUAN: You think it is a diversion?

NADLER: It is a total diversion. You can talk about the border wall, worse provisions they're trying to put in to stop -- they really want to reduce immigration by 50 percent, to have people who --

BOLDUAN: That's a policy difference. That's a legal immigration policy difference.

NADLER: Policy difference is legitimate.

BOLDUAN: You're saying don't do it now?

NADLER: I'm not saying don't do it now. What I'm saying is don't play hostage, don't hold the kids hostage, don't hold the DACA Dreamers hostage, that's what I'm saying.

BOLDUAN: With all of the heat that is coming at this administration from -- forget heat from Democrats, from Republicans on this issue, Congressman Nadler, when the images are coming out and it doesn't look like it is going to subside, do you think the White House can maintain this position for another day?

NADLER: For another day? Yes. For a while? I don't know. I certainly hope not. That will depend to a large extent on Republicans. Democrats can scream all we want. If Republicans are -- we do. The question is how many. If enough Republicans come out against it, they will not be able to sustain this.

BOLDUAN: Congressman Nadler, thank you so much. Congressman Vela, thank you so much. We look forward to hearing what comes from your tour of the facility once you get in and once you come out to report.

We'll go from here, straight over to New Orleans, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is speaking right now. Let's listen.


BOLDUAN: Listening right there to Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking in New Orleans, saying that they do not want to separate children from their parents, but also saying we don't want parents to bring children into the country illegally, defending the zero- tolerance policy of this administration.

Let's see what happens next because any moment we could hear from the president himself and could be coming to us live from the White House, could speak about this. We'll bring it to you. Stay with us.



BOLDUAN: Outrage is growing over the Trump administration's practice of taking children from immigrant parents who are trying to cross the border with Mexico. Members of Congress and child health care experts have visited the detention facilities.

They're voicing concerns about this policy and the effect that it is having on children in these detention facilities and their futures. The president says he hates seeing the children taken from their parents, the us who, though, continues to blame Democrats say it is law and up to them to fix. Just last hour, Kirstjen Nielsen said her agency is doing nothing wrong.


NIELSEN: There has been much outcry, consternation and frankly misinformation for in the press and Congress and advocacy groups over the last few weeks that we at DHS are intentionally doing things that are cruel, immoral and disgraceful. We are doing none of those things. We are enforcing the laws passed by Congress.


BOLDUAN: Let's cut through the noise now. Let's try to put politics aside. Let's know what we don't know. Here with me now, CNN contributor, immigration attorney, Raul Reyes, and president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Colleen Kraft. Doctor, first to you, you have been to one of these facilities and your account of what you saw is really heart breaking, a toddler separated from her mother the night before, inconsolable on a play mat, a worker at the facility trying to give her a toy, a book, something to calm her down, telling you they can't touch the children, can't pick them up, can't hug them. What does this do to these kids?

DR. COLLEEN KRAFT, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS: Absolutely right. What this does to these children is it produces a condition called toxic stress, which is an elevation of your fight and flight hormones that normally keep you out of danger, but in this situation, they remain high and it inhibits the development of their brains. It disrupts their brain architecture and keeps them from developing language and social emotional bonds and gross motor skills and the development that they could possibly have.

BOLDUAN: Doctor, what was your take away after visiting one of these facilities on what is happening to the children.

KRAFT: I can't describe to you the room I was in with the toddlers where normally toddlers are rambunctious and running around. We had one child just screaming and crying and the others were really silent.

And this is not normal activity or brain development with these children. The takeaway is that these children need their parents. And if we're going to do the right thing, if we're going to first do no harm, we're going to keep these children and parents together.

BOLDUAN: And, Doctor, I read you said the separation in your words you said is nothing less than government sanctioned child abuse. Do you really think that this amounts to child abuse?

KRAFT: This does amount to child abuse. These children have been traumatized in their trip up to the border and the first thing that happens is we take away the one constant in their life, that helps them buffer all of these horrible experiences. That's child abuse.

BOLDUAN: Coming from the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, that really tells me something. The secretary of homeland security said this morning, I want you to respond to her it important to understand the minors are very well taken care of, don't believe the press. Doctor, what do you say?

KRAFT: All I have to do is go to the room and look at what happened to these children in this room. And you can be given food, and water, and shelter, and still have disruption of your brain architecture because of toxic stress. We know the biology of what happens when parents and children are separated, and it is not falling under the definition of being well taken care of.

BOLDUAN: If they can't touch these children, does it extend to -- who is changing the toddlers' diapers?

KRAFT: Well, again, you can have these perfunctory items done with these children. It is just the comforting and the consoling and the part of that social emotional development that is foundational to any other development for these children.

BOLDUAN: Doctor, stand by. Raul, let's cut through the policy bit of it right now. Let's talk about the law. Does U.S. law require that if you enter the United States illegally, you separate family -- parents from children?

RAUL REYES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No, there is no current law that mandates this family separation policy. Now, what we are seeing right now is under Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration zero-tolerance policy, a byproduct of that, a direct result of that is that the families are being split up.

But when we see people in the administration referencing a law or something passed by the Democrats, they're generally speaking two things.