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Trump Administration Under Fire For Children Separation Policy; Interview With Texas Congressman Vicente Gonzalez. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired June 18, 2018 - 16:30   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Is that mostly what is in the facility, these -- these individual chain-link fence, cages, or whatever you want to call them?

REP. VICENTE GONZALEZ (D), TEXAS: That is correct. That's -- it is 100 percent.

In the particular facility in the McAllen area, it's about a 75,000- square-foot warehouse that has chain-link-fenced rooms, that also have a ceiling of chain-link, so it is like a complete capsule of chain- link.

And then it is divided depending on gender, on age. And some kids are unaccompanied. Some of them have been taken from their parents. And we certainly can do better than what I see now.

I was just in Central America a few weeks ago, and I saw busloads of people who had been deported from Mexico. And they were processed as a family unit and they were deported as a family unit.

And one thing I could say, we certainly should be doing just as good or better than what Mexico is doing.

TAPPER: One last question, quickly, if you could.

Congressman Joaquin Castro, your colleague, said that he saw a child eight months old who had been separated from his parents. What is the youngest child you saw?

GONZALEZ: Well, they were probably toddler-age.

Then, when I was at the bridge, there was a lady who had just come in with -- that had a baby a few weeks ago on the road. She had been traveling since March, and she had a child. She was from Honduras. She had her child somewhere in Mexico, and she had just come across the bridge and was asking for asylum.

There are rumors. There are both -- there are rumors on both ends whether people who are showing up to the border asking for asylum are being separated. The official answer is that they are not.

But there are pretty strong rumors out there that they are. And we couldn't have that question answered yesterday when we asked it. So, apparently, that is something that needs to be further investigated.

TAPPER: All right, Democratic Congressman Vicente Gonzalez of Texas, thank you so much for joining me, sir. I appreciate it.

The head of Homeland Security is warning that some of the people crossing the border may be pretending to be families.

Does this 2-year-old Honduran girl look like she's pretending to cry as her mother is being patted down by border agents?

Stay with us.



TAPPER: Welcome back.

We're just learning that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen will be joining Sarah Sanders at today's White House press briefing that is set to begin soon.

We were originally told it was going to be at 1:15 today. Then we were told it was going to be at 3:30 today. Then we were told it was going to be at 4:00 today. It is 4:36. Obviously, it hasn't happened yet.

One operating theory is that they are having difficulty coming up with answers for the questions that we're going to have for them about the president's plan, this new policy that is resulting in families being ripped apart at the border.

My panel is here with me.

First of all, since Kirstjen Nielsen is going to -- the secretary of homeland security is going to be joining the country in a few minutes, I want to start with a couple of things she's said.

First of all, there was yesterday. She was tweeted -- tweeting a bunch of things about this new policy. And one of the things she wrote was -- quote -- "We do not have the luxury of pretending that all individual" -- I'm sorry.

"We do not have a policy of separating families at the border, period."

That is Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. "We do not have a policy of separating families at the border."

But then also we have what she said today had when she was speaking to a bunch of law enforcement officials in New Orleans. Let's roll that sound.


KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: 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.


TAPPER: So, yesterday, there is no policy. Today, there is a policy, and I'm defending it.

What is going on, Scott?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think they're trying to be too cute by half. That is what we call it back in Kentucky.

And they better get their ducks in a huddle before they walk out there at 5:00, because being all over the place is making it impossible for the president's allies in Congress to know what to do, to know what they say.

And it's vital that they get a unified message here as they go into this immigration reform debate this week. That's what I hope they are not losing sight of, the chance for a win.

They've got this immediate issue with this wrong-headed policy. But then they have the longer-term issue of trying to score a legislative win to solve all these problems at once. And I fear that they're caught in the storm today.

But they have got to get this right today, so it doesn't mess up what is going to happen the rest of the week.

TAPPER: Nina, is there any way for Sarah Sanders or the Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, to out and give an explanation for this that would make this issue go away?

NINA TURNER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think so. They are not going to do it.

They're continue to champion what the president wants them to do. Sarah Sanders has never done anything or said anything that was the antithesis of what the president wanted.

They're trying to defend the indefensible. And they can't find a way to do it. We know that these centers are moneymakers, too. You look at the private industry, the contracts. ICE spends about $2 billion a year in funding, giving it to these independent private corporations to house these young people.

They have no protections there. And I want Americans to imagine. But the CNN poll shows it very clearly. If you are not a Democrat, you can't imagine that, if those were your children, you wouldn't want them treated this way.

He doesn't have to do it this way. In past administrations, they would release families together, give them a court day. That is exactly what President Trump could do, if he wanted to. It is -- this is wrong and it is going to come back to bite -- it is biting him right now.

TAPPER: Alfonso?

ALFONSO AGUILAR, PRESIDENT, LATINO PARTNERSHIP FOR CONSERVATIVE PRINCIPLES: Well, what is striking is, I don't think they can fix this.

The public statements are out there, and they have contradicted each other. It seems like they were not talking amongst themselves. She says that they're not separating families. At the same time, the Department of Justice has issued public guidance, saying that anybody who enters -- tries to enter illegally will be prosecuted criminally, and the children will be separated, guidance in English and Spanish.


So they are not talking to each other. What is she talking about?

I frankly -- again, I think it is a communications problem. If I were the White House, I would try to focus on the compromise bill in the House, which ends this policy.

But to continue to blame Democrats, the fact of the matter is that immigration law does not require families to be separated. It is a policy decision to criminally prosecute everybody who tries to enter the country illegally.

So, it is on the administration. They have to accept that.


TAPPER: Yes. No, there is a provision in the law that if people at Customs and Border Control or immigration feel that the child is in danger, that he or she could be separated, or if they don't believe that the person is actually the legal guardian.

That is to cut down on coyotes and human trafficking.

AGUILAR: And that point is very valid.

We don't want to underestimate that reality. There is a lot of human trafficking.

TAPPER: Right.

AGUILAR: A lot of these children are coming in with people who are not their relatives to be part of the trafficking rings.

Some of these kids may be 12, 13, 14 that may have ties with MS-13. That is a reality.

TURNER: But, I mean...

AGUILAR: So there is a point there. But... TAPPER: But not -- but that is not what we're talking about.


AGUILAR: But that doesn't justify separating...

TAPPER: Right.

TURNER: That is not what the administration -- they are not doing it that way.

And to overlay -- because we continue to paint -- this administration continues to paint folks as the other. And that is really the tragic part of this, to just assume that some of these young people may connections with those. They may not.

Some of these people are coming here, but a vast majority of them are coming here...


AGUILAR: But having worked at Homeland Security, tour those detention centers, tour the border, look, the majority are good people. They're coming with their parents.

TURNER: That is right.

AGUILAR: But we do have minors with criminal records.


TURNER: But let's sort that out.


AGUILAR: We have to sort them out. Exactly.


TURNER: But not in the way that they are doing it.

AGUILAR: Yes, but I think, on the other side, they are really trying to underestimate the problem.


TURNER: President Trump revels...


AGUILAR: Catch and release is a bad policy.


JENNINGS: I think most Americans would demand that the U.S. Border Patrol vet out the people who are coming in here. AGUILAR: Right.

JENNINGS: What -- no matter what happens when you get here, if somebody has criminal ties, if somebody is here for the wrong reasons, we have to figure that out at the time.


JENNINGS: And so -- and it is totally legitimate to try to do that.

To apply it to everybody, I don't think is going to be acceptable to most folks.

TAPPER: We're going to -- we're waiting still for the Department of Homeland Security secretary to take questions at the White House. CNN will bring that live when it happens.

We're also following another Russia probe bombshell. Did a longtime Trump adviser simply forget about a meeting with a Russian who offered dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for $2 million? How he's changing his story.

Stay with us.


[16:45:00] TAPPER: Breaking news now. Just minutes ago we learned that the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is coming to the White House to address the outrage over these children being taken from their parents as they are apprehended at the border. A White House official is now telling CNN that Sarah Sanders, the White House Press Secretary did not want to do the briefing today amid the swirl of questions about this separation policy so Secretary Nielsen was flown back New Orleans where she was addressing law enforcement officials to take the questions. This explains at least in part why the briefing was delayed several times even more than usual today. Let's go to CNN White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan, so Sarah Sanders is unable to defend this policy, is that what I am to gather from this?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, clearly Jake she at least doesn't want to take questions from reporters by herself up here in this room on these conflicting stances that we've seen from the administration over this policy in recent days. As we reported earlier, they've really been all over the place contradicting each other in certain circumstances over this. And now this briefing has been delayed because Sarah Sanders didn't want to take the questions by herself. She wanted the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, someone who has been a subject of fierce criticism over this to come up here and answer reporters' questions. Now that's noteworthy because Kirstjen Nielsen was in New Orleans just this morning giving that speech where she was defending this policy. After just yesterday she said on Twitter that the policy didn't even exist. We had a hint that this was coming.

The briefing was delayed from 1:15 to 3:30, then to 4:00, and then at 4:30 we got a note from the Press Secretary saying it was going to be delayed so Nielsen could come out here and answer reporters' questions on that zero tolerance immigration policy. she thanked people for their patience as this went on. But clearly, Jake, what we are seeing is the White House is still struggling to get on the same page regarding this even as we're seeing the President really double down, try to take this into their own hands. We know that Nielson gave that speech this morning defending this but then the President instead of letting her speak for this policy and the Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he came out at that space event earlier here at the White House today tried to justify what has happened with immigration in recent days. And now we are waiting to hear from Sarah Sanders but it looks like it'll be Neilson taking most of the heat in here, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much. Again, we're waiting for Secretary Nielsen from the Department of Homeland Security to enter the briefing room at the White House to play something of a relief pitcher for Sarah Sanders. CNN we'll bring that to you live. Stay with us.


[16:50:00] TAPPER: Welcome back. We're following the breaking news. We were told minutes ago that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen will address the outrage over all these kids being taken from their parents as they are apprehended at the border. It turns out according to a White House official that Sarah Sanders the White House Press Secretary did not want to do the briefing today, at least not alone amid all this outrage and all these questions over these family separations so secretary Nielsen was flown back from New Orleans where she was addressing a law enforcement convention to join her. My panel joins me now. I guess one question I have and let me start with you Nina Turner, is Secretary of Department Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen becoming the face of this policy even though I think it really was Jeff Sessions that started it.

NINA TURNER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It was. It seems that way especially the remarks that she made, I think it was the sheriff or so some type of sheriffs association, just being you know, saying what they're not going to take and they're not going to stand for, she absolutely is. And good for Sarah Sanders -- Huckabee to say that you know I'm -- Huckabee Sanders that I'm not going down alone. I need somebody else to stand by my side and continue to perpetuate this lie. They know good and well that they could change this policy, that the President could change this policy of separating families. They should come out and just say you know what, mistakes were made, we're going to change this policy. The President has instructed us to change this policy and that's exactly what we're going to do. We will not separate children from their families.

[16:55:15] TAPPER: 58 percent of the Republican base supports the policy. Scott, did they need to do it? I mean, this is an administration, to be frank, that seems a lot more interested in pleasing the base than in doing things for the for Democrats and Independents as well.

JENNINGS: Well, obviously the rest of the country though largely disapproves of it. There are a lot of Republicans that disapprove of it. There's a lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill that disapprove of it. So I do think they need to reverse it. The big win for the President though is to get past this and pass legislation that deals with this outside of policy and outside of Executive Order and do it via actual U.S. laws that the president has already -- always had the right instinct on this/ Do away with this piecemeal immigration stuff via Executive Order and do it by laws. That's -- they're on the cusp of moving in that direction. I hope Nielsen comes out today and frankly addresses that issue which is what is the President going to say to the Republicans on Capitol Hill tomorrow. To me, that's as important as anything right now. Are we on the brink of comprehensive immigration reform?

TAPPER: So here's the thing. There is a lot of damage being done to these kids according to doctors and experts. I want you to take a listen to the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics talking about what this does to a child to forcibly separate him or her from their parents.


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


TAPPER: Dr. Colleen Kraft, the President of the American Academy of Pediatrics. I just want to underline that point because you know we get wrapped up in the policy debates and the politics of this. We are talking about children being hurt by the U.S. government.

AGUILAR: And as she well said -- I mean trying to enter the country illegally is already a traumatic experience. And then if you add being separated from your parents, it's devastating for a child. But look, I think more than anything, I'm hoping that there's not a political calculation here. Stephen Miller did an interview recently where he said that they were going to push some tougher enforcement measures in the next few months in Congress. Hopefully, they're not trying to energize their base as we move towards November. I don't think that -- I mean that may work for the President at the national level, I don't think his political strategy translating -- translates into the states or the districts.

JENNINGS: You know, we know the President has a compassionate heart when it comes to kids. I mean, we bombed another country because the President was shown photographs of Syrian children being gassed and he launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. And that's over there. This is happening right here so. I'm wondering when somebody is going to talk to the President about exactly what's happening here, what are the ramifications and what role can he play and stepping in and ending this idea. They're going to regret doing this but he can fix it and he can also fix this legislative problem and that would be a huge week for the White House. TAPPER: But here's the thing Nina. I want to get -- I want to get

your position on this. The President's base likes this because they think illegal immigration is a huge problem and they agree with Jeff Sessions and Kirstjen Nielsen that this is a deterrent, that this will deter. Now, there's not any evidence that it's actually serving as a deterrent but they think the blame for this goes to the parents that are bringing these kids across the border illegally, it's not the fault of the U.S. government that the parents are committing crimes. The U.S. government is dealing with it appropriately. That's their view. Why would President Trump undo it?

TURNER: I don't -- I don't think that he will. I mean, and I disagree that he shows compassion. I mean, there's lots of suffering going on in this country right now where he has not shown the requisite compassion. This is just apolitical calculus for him. He doesn't care about these kids going out all the trauma that is causing them and their families. What -- the image of the United States right now, even the U.N. is weighing in on this. So politics is all he cares about. If he cared about the flesh-and-blood consequences he would not be pushing a zero-tolerance policy at this moment. So he just flat-out doesn't care and we need to --

JENNINGS: If he doesn't -- if he doesn't care about these kids, if he doesn't care about the plight of immigrants, why is he willing to make a deal on immigration to give DREAMers citizenship? Of course, he cares.

TURNER: He doesn't care.

JENNINGS: Of course, he cares.


TURNER: -- in that bill you know, putting up the wall. Also in that compromise bill that you both have talked about, there's no guarantees in that bill that children will not be separated from their families. That's not -- that's not


AGUILAR: It is in the bill. They would -- they would have to stay together. Look, the problem of the White House is that you have different advisors giving different advice to the President. And I think he's listening to Sessions, he's certainly listening --

TURNER: When does he listen to anybody? He doesn't listen to anybody.

AGUILAR: Well, I think I think Stephen Miller has been undercutting this President.

TURNER: Oh my god.

AGUILAR: I think the President should follow his instincts. I think he understands the immigration issue -- TAPPER: And that's all the time we have. I apologize. Alfonso

Aguilar and Scott Jennings, and Nina Turner, thanks so much. The White House briefing with Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen is coming up next. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm turning you over to Wolf Blitzer.