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Children Separation Policy Hurting Trump Administration in Polls; Who's Caring for the Kids Taken From Immigrants Parents?; Interview with Congressman Vicente Gonzalez of Texas. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired June 18, 2018 - 16:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We are going to begin with breaking news in our politics lead.

We have some brand-new CNN polls to bring you, as we are standing by for a White House briefing which will begin any moment. We will bring that to you when it occurs.

But President Trump, as you know, is facing an onslaught of bipartisan outrage over his administration's new policy which is resulting in hundreds, if not thousands of children being taken from families if they cross the border illegally, as the country sees these startling images of children being taken from their parents and put in chain- link pens of sorts.

Some kids are crying, no doubt confused and scared. We have seen this image of this little Honduran girl, barely even a toddler, weeping as her mother is searched and detained.

Brand-new CNN polls just out for THE LEAD show that two-thirds of the American people polled disapprove of this Trump policy change which has led to all these kids being taken from their parents; 67 percent disapprove.

The photos, of course, are shocking the world and bipartisan leaders, including former first lady Laura Bush, who says in a new "Washington Post" op-ed today that the new Trump administration -- quote -- "zero- tolerance policy is cruel, it is immoral and it breaks my heart," the former first lady writes.

But it turns out Laura Bush is an outlier in her party. According to our new CNN poll, a solid majority of the Republican Party, 58 percent of Republicans, approve of this new zero-tolerance policy which is leading to threat family separations.

This has all led to President Obama's approval on the issue of immigration dropping five points since May. It is currently 59 percent of the public disapproves of his handling of the immigration issue, 35 percent approves. Today, President Trump continued his false claim that his new policy is because of Democrats, which is, again, not true.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I say it's very strongly the Democrats' fault. They're obstruction -- they're really obstructionists, and they are obstructing.


TAPPER: I want to bring in my panel for a reaction.

We have with us former Democratic Ohio state Senator Nina Turner, former special assistant to President George W. Bush Scott Jennings. And we have with Alfonso Aguilar. He's a Republican and the former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship.

First of all, let's just start with the number. I thought it was kind of surprising; 58 percent of Republicans polled approve of this policy.

Obviously, the numbers are completely the other way when it comes to independents and Democrats.

Alfonso, how do you explain this? Fifty-eight percent of the public support this new policy with these mass separations of children from their parents.

ALFONSO AGUILAR, PRESIDENT, LATINO PARTNERSHIP FOR CONSERVATIVE PRINCIPLES: Well, sadly, the Republican base is very supportive of the president on immigration. And I think they're going to defend any decision he takes on immigration.

But you have to understand, and, look, I'm conservative. I believe in tough immigration proposals or measures. You can be tough on immigration at the border and not -- but you don't need this policy. This policy is -- it doesn't serve as a deterrent.

In fact, since it was implemented, it really hasn't reduced the number of people trying to enter illegally. In fact, the number has gone up. So I don't know why you need this policy.

I think Republicans are defending it just because it comes from Donald Trump. We're at this point where whatever the president says on immigration, Republicans are going to support him.

TAPPER: Including, Scott, the false claim that Democrats are behind this, when the facts are, this is a new policy, a zero-tolerance policy, driven by Jeff Sessions and the Department of Homeland Security.

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I have my doubts whether this is going to deter anyone from coming here. They are running away from extreme violence and they're running towards a country that they think is worth the risk. So it is human nature to go where life is better. And I think people

are going to continue to do that. I think the president is right on in trying to get to a comprehensive immigration reform deal.

I don't think they need this policy to get there. I think all we really need is the president to tell the House Republicans tomorrow -- and he's meeting with them -- this is the deal I will support this, I will sign it, I will not undercut it after you all pass it, and then get this thing over to the Senate and put this thing in Chuck Schumer's court.

If they're serious about an immigration deal, then if the president and the Republicans are unified, then the ball is in their court to deliver enough votes in the Senate to pass it.

That is where the politics of this can change. But right now, with this policy and these images, the politics aren't good for the White House.

TAPPER: Nina, what is your take on all of this?

NINA TURNER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I mean, he's just playing games and he's playing a deadly game here.

And to have first lady Laura Bush come out. As we know, she barely comes out. She didn't necessarily do it when she was in the White House, but for her to say that this is cruel and immoral. And that is the space where I think we have to live as a country.

We get the laws. Congress is past due for having comprehensive immigration reform. That blame can be placed on both parties. But what is staring the president squarely in his court right now is the policy that is being pushed by his attorney general, at his behest, to be -- to separate children from their parents.


This does not have to happen. And there -- we have to call the humanity question in this country.

AGUILAR: But let me make a quick point, because I do agree that this policy is cruel, it is unfair. I agree with Laura Bush.

But, look, I didn't see the same level of outrage when Barack Obama was deporting more people than any other president in history, people, the majority of the first years, without criminal records, separating families at the border and throughout the country. Where was the outrage? Most Democrats were not talking about it.

TURNER: There was some outrage.

AGUILAR: A few, but not the majority.

TURNER: No. Well, see, there is a difference between what the politicians are willing to tolerate and what the people are willing to tolerate. People were out there on the front lines protesting President Obama,

calling him the deporter in chief. So, I get all that. We can't excuse this from any administration.


TURNER: And so people have been putting out photographs from 2014 and made a mistake thinking it was under the Trump administration, and really happened under President Obama's administration.

But what we're dealing right now is President Donald J. Trump is in the White House right now, and he has the power. And he's rarely followed President Trump -- President Obama on anything. So he should not blame this on President Obama now.

He has the authority to change this.

JENNINGS: This is where Trump is in a unique position. Just like on North Korea, he can say, this is a problem that has vexed multiple administrations in both parties, and I am uniquely positioned to show up and fix it.

It is the tack he took on North Korea. I think this week he could end this policy, get the House to pass an immigration deal, and take the same tack. And I think his job approval would go up, because Americans do think this has been languishing in the Congress. And somebody has got to step in.

TAPPER: Let's talk about job approval right now, because there is evidence that this position and what he's doing with these family separations is actually hurting his job approval.

If you look at the new numbers for his job approval, 39 percent approve, 54 percent disapprove. This is the lowest of any modern president 18 months in. If you compare him to other presidents, he has the lowest standard.

And if you look at the overall issues -- the issue matrix on what voters think about the issues that he's doing, 59 percent disapprove of him on immigration. That is the highest number. He's actually at 49 percent approval, 43 percent disapprove on economy.

But that is where he is suffering, if you look at this. People -- the American -- now, the base likes it. Republicans like it. But independents and Democrats hate it. And this is hurting him, Scott.

This is -- this stance on immigration is hurting President Trump's popularity with the country.

JENNINGS: Yes, no doubt. But here is the thing. He is -- he can be a hero this week.

He can end this policy, which I think they're going to ultimately regret having implemented in the first place. He can get the Republicans in Congress to follow his lead. It is important to remember, the Republican base will not agree with anything coming out if it is sold as the congressional plan.

It has to be the Trump plan. He has to say, I'm going to support it, I will not undercut it after you pass it, and I will get out there and bang the drum for it. That is what will deliver the party unity necessary.

If he does that and they pass a bill, you are going to see those numbers change.

TAPPER: But would Democrats in the Senate, will Democrats in the Senate be willing to go along with it, if it is a Republican House bill, because it will probably be more conservative?

TURNER: Yes, it just depends on what is in there, Jake.

The president is going to have to use his superior negotiating skills, as defined by him, to try to bring a bipartisan effort. The only way we are going to get real comprehensive, humane immigration reform is in a bipartisan way.

And I do agree in terms of the president could show some leadership on this if he wanted to.



The great news is, like, sadly, it is a communications problem for the White House, because we're talking about this cruel policy while we have a compromise bill in the House that is actually pretty good. It ends chain migration, but it doesn't reduce the numbers of legal immigration, because it eliminates extended family visas, but it will repurpose them for employment-based categories.

And it would provide to over a million dreamers a path to citizenship. So, the complaint from Democrats was, we don't like a reduction in legal immigration. Well, the compromise bill doesn't have that. We want a path to citizenship. This bill actually has that.

But, in return, it provides $25 million -- billion dollars for the border wall. This is perfect for our consensus. Instead, Democrats are talking about this and not the compromise bill. We have a bill right now that could end this.

I think Republicans are behind the ball. We're on the defensive. We should be talking about this compromise bill. And, hopefully, tomorrow, the president will support this bill.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. We have got a lot more to talk about.

When we come back, we are going to talk more about this very controversial policy and how it is hurting President Trump and the White House.

Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


TAPPER: We're standing by for the White House briefing set to begin any moment, as the issue of families being ripped apart hits a boiling point.

The White House has given all kinds of answers as to why this is happening. What is the truth?

CNN Kaitlan Collins is live at the White House.

And, Kaitlan, the administration seems to have so many different explanations and stories about this. Why can't they get its story straight?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Jake, they have so many here. And that -- we have seen them play out over the past few days from officials, ranging from, this policy doesn't exist, it does exist, but it's not as bad as the media is making it sound, that it is the Democrats' fault, and that it deters people from crossing the border illegally.

None of those things are true, but the White House is continuing to insist that they are.


COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump not backing down on his false claim that Democrats are to blame for his administration's zero tolerance immigration policy that is leading to the separation of parents from their children on the border.

TRUMP: It's very strongly the Democrats' fault. The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility. Won't be.

COLLINS: The administration struggling to get on the same page today as America watched images of children, hundreds, if not thousands, taken from their parents under the new Trump policy lying on mattresses in cages flash across their screens.

[16:15:06] The Department of Homeland Security secretary defending the policy.

KRISTJEN NIELSEN, DHS SECRETARY: We will not apologize for the job we do or for the job law enforcement does for doing the job that the American people expect us to do. It is important to note that these minors are very well taken care of. Don't believe the press.

COLLINS: Though she misleadingly suggested yesterday the policy didn't exist.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions who touted the zero-tolerance policy last month -- JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: If you don't want your child to be

separated, then don't bring him across the border illegally.

COLLINS: Saying this today --

SESSIONS: We do not want to separate children from their parents. But we do have a policy of prosecuting adults who flout our laws to come here illegally instead of waiting their turn --

COLLINS: On Capitol Hill, both parties now calling on President Trump to end the separations.

REP. WILL HURD (R), TEXAS: I don't think separating a kid from their mommy is going to prevent terrorists or drugs from coming into our country. And so, how do these parents know where their kids are.

COLLINS: Even this from one of the president's former adviser.

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: The president is very good at imagery. This is very bad for the Republican Party and it's very bad for the president.


COLLINS: So, Jake, all of the anger over this is growing as you could see from there, a lot of this is bipartisan outrage coming from very prominent members of the conservative party, all of this is growing and now, Sarah Sanders is going to have to come out and face reporters and try to give one answer or explanation for why the White House is enforcing this policy the way that it is. So far, their explanation for all of that has not been to explain why they think this is the best way to move forward, but to blame other people. So, now, Sarah Sanders is going to come out and face reporters and have to answer for the conflicting stances over this here, Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right. Kaitlin Collins at the White House for us, thanks so much.

The White House set to face questions any moment. We're going to bring that to you live.

Meanwhile, we're finding out more about the company housing hundreds if not thousands of kids who are taken from their parents because of this new policy, but does the job application for that employment read like one for a prison guard?

Stay with us.


[16:21:17] TAPPER: We're standing by for the White House briefing. We'll bring that to you any moment as the outrage grows over children being taken from their parents as they cross the border. Today, we're getting a closer look at the people caring for many of these children who were separated from their undocumented immigrant parents. A company contracted out by the government called Southwest Key. It operates more than two dozen immigration children shelters in Texas, Arizona and California. It's one of the largest such providers in the U.S.

Among the qualifications for a full time seasonal youth care worker at one of its locations, applicants must be at least 21 years old, have a high school diploma or GED and be computer literate. But what struck when we were doing the research into this company is the company's disclosure of the possible physical demands. Applicants must be, quote, able to respond with appropriate protocol in a variety of dynamic supervision situations with clients of zero to 17 years of age. Again zero to 17 years old.

Those are children possibly traumatized after spending days, weeks, even months without their parents and now in the care of complete strangers. The Southwest Key job description goes on to read and listen to this, quote, in a sudden or emergency event, staff must be at all times physically able to run, jump, lunge, twist, push pull, apply Southwest Key approved restraint techniques and otherwise manage or coerce the full weight of an adolescent. While it is uncommon, all staff must be physically and mentally able to manage youth to become uncooperative, sick, violent, or display any other form of harmful or threatening behavior.

Southwest Key says its training policy requires a minimum of 80 hours classroom and on the job training before they can supervise a child. But we read a story about a former Southwest Key employee in Arizona, a whistleblower. He spoke to "The Los Angeles Times" and "The Times" says this whistleblower described the facility as, quote, unequipped to deal with children experiencing trauma, children were running away, screaming, throwing furniture and attempting suicide, unquote.

Today, the president of the academy -- the American Academy of Pediatrics told CNN the trauma of separating these children from their parents amounts to child abuse.

CNN is learning more about the shelters housing the youngest kids separated from their families.

CNN's Nick Valencia joins us from Brownsville, Texas.

And, Nick, how are the small children, we haven't seen these kids in these tours approved by the government. How are you they doing without mom and dad?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, this could have serious long- term health consequences for these children. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association says the trauma to these children and their caretakers could be life long trauma.

Meanwhile, here in Brownsville today, we're learning about a facility where children, all of them under the age of 10 are being taken after they're separated from their families. And according to one Democratic congressman, who had a tour of that facility, there's even a room for toddlers as this facility expects and anticipates babies under one years old.


VALENCIA (voice-over): This nondescript warehouse is housing some of the very youngest children caught up in this immigration policy. Inside, kids all under the age of 10, some as young as five years old have been taken from their parents after crossing the border.

REP. FILEMON VELA (D), TEXAS: Well, it's really heartbreaking --

VALENCIA: We weren't allowed inside for a tour but Congressman Filemon Vela was. He was part of a congressional delegation to see the conditions the children are being housed.

VELA: There are about 80 children, 40 of these kids have been separated from their families. And there is -- rooms with toddlers, so there is no question that even children underneath the age of one are being separated from their families.

VALENCIA: The vital signs which are removable say Casa El Presidente, only the indicators what's the behind walls. The shelter is smaller than the massive child care facility less than three miles away, Casa Padre, which is housed in a former Walmart superstore, both facilities are run by the same nonprofit, Southwest Key programs, in cooperation with Health and Human Services.

[16:25:10] Southwest Key says their goal is to reunite families as soon as possible.

It was over the weekend a group of Democratic lawmakers toured that shelter, along with a detention facility in McAllen, Texas. The images spurred bipartisan outrage, chain-link fences, mattresses on the floor, pens that look like cages.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), OREGON: Those kids inside who have been separated from their parents are already being traumatized. It doesn't matter whether the floor is swept and the bed sheets tucked in tight.

VALENCIA: In McAllen, no one is supposed to be housed longer than three days but one immigrant said he had been there for a week. Critics say it's a result of the Trump administration's new policy, one that has facilities bracing for a surge of immigrants.

HURD: What I've seen is a manifestation of a failed policy. I don't think separating a kid from their mommy is going to prevent terrorists or drugs from coming into our country.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: This is not working in terms of stemming the folks who are fleeing for their lives from violence.


VALENCIA: And earlier, I spoke to Democrat lawmaker here in Texas, Congressman Vela, who said that President Trump's zero tolerance immigration policy has turned the American dream into the American nightmare -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Nick Valencia, thank you so much.

Horrible story.

Joining me now, Democratic Congressman Vicente Gonzalez of Texas. His district includes McAllen, where the largest border patrol processing center is located. He toured that facility yesterday.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

More families have been separated leaving the McAllen facility than any other facility in the country. The children that you saw there, how did they seem to be doing?

REP. VICENTE GONZALEZ (D), TEXAS: Well, as you said, you know, it's a clean facility with tight beds, but I didn't see a single smile when I was there and it's just a real American shame. I think it's a blemish on our policy and I think ripping kids away from mom and dad is just -- it is un-American. It's not what the world knows us for. It's not what -- the America we know and love. And I think this policy needs to stop.

And the only person who can stop this is the president of the United States, Donald Trump, and our attorney general, Jeff Sessions. They have the power to turn this policy around.

TAPPER: Now, Jeff Sessions just said today that this is the policy because when people break the law, their parents get prosecuted and that's why children get separated from their parents. How do you think this problem should be dealt with?

GONZALEZ: Well, shame on him for saying that, because we're talking about human beings and I think the majority of Americans regardless of where they are in immigration and regardless of -- I'm a -- I have to begin with a premise, that I'm a law and order border congressman. I don't believe in open borders, I believe in having good immigration policy that's strictly followed. But separating families is not what -- the beacon that the world stands for.

And so, another thing that we haven't talked about that I think is important is our failed policy in Central America which is what got us here. Right now, we're dealing with a symptom of mass migration but why are we here? Because we've ignored these countries for decades and the crime-ridden and there is not security on the ground, we haven't helped boost their economy. I think for a fraction of the price of what we spend now dealing with it -- the symptom, we could resolve these issues and we need to think about foreign policy in Central America today, otherwise this is a continuous problem --

TAPPER: I just want to ask -- I hear what you are saying. But I really want to hear about what you saw in the processing center in the little time we have here. You said you didn't see many smiles. I mean, were kids --

GONZALEZ: I didn't see --

TAPPER: Tell us what you saw. GONZALEZ: I didn't see a single smile. I didn't see a single smile.

They are basically hurricane fence rooms, some people could call them cages or larger kennels that house younger kids, that house more adult men and have women separated and then a section of young girls. Not a single smile.

It was Father's Day. You know, it was a sad day. And I can't imagine what they've been through to get just to this point. But one thing that I thought was very interesting, there would be four or five or six young children in a section and usually, you'd see kids playing with each other or regardless of social economic standards or where they are, kids tend to play with each other.

I didn't see a single smile when I walked through there. So, certainly, we have a failed policy. It is not an American policy or where the majority of the American people stand and I think the administration needs to do the right thing and address this issue immediately.

TAPPER: One of the most striking images of course showing the chain- link fencing and we've heard it described as a cage. Is that mostly what's in the facility, these individual chain-link fence cages or whatever you want to call them?

GONZALEZ: That's correct. It's 100 percent. In a particular facility in McAllen area, it's about a 75,000 square foot --