Sen. Kamala Harris (D) of California told NBC's Kasie Hunt that she believes the time has come for the country to reexamine the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency of the Department of Homeland Security, in the midst of the current furor over the separation of illegal alien adults from children at the U.S. border with Mexico. Some Democrats have called for the abolition of the agency, which has taken thousands of illegal alien minors into custody and housed them at detention facilities in various parts of the country. During the interview, Harris signaled that she may be contemplating a presidential run.

"I think there’s no question that we’ve got to critically reexamine ICE and its role and the way it is being administered and the work it is doing," Harris told Hunt. "And we need to probably think about starting from scratch because there's a lot that is wrong with the way that it's conducting itself. And we need to deal with that." Harris continued, saying "First of all, I don't think that the government should be in the position of separating families and that is clearly what is part of what's happening at ICE and DHS."

"You look at what's happening, again, in terms of how they're conducting their perspective on asylum seekers, that is a real problem and is contrary to all of the spirit and the reason that we even have the asylum rules and laws in the first place," Harris said. "Their mission, I think, is very much in question and has to be reexamined."

Hunt interviewed Harris while protesters were at the Otay Mesa detention center near San Diego on Friday. Hundreds of protesters turned out to protest against President Donald Trump for his zero-tolerance immigration policy. Addressing the crowd, Harris said that Trump’s immigrant policies are “human rights abuse.” Harris told the boisterous rally, “I spoke with the mothers who are there, and my heart is broken,” she said, adding: “These mothers in there think that they are alone. We need to remind them and everyone else that they are not alone, and that we all stand with them.” The protesters cheered and displayed placards that read: "Keep families together," “Abolish ICE,” "Free the kids," and “Immigrants make America great.”

In more evidence of her presidential hopes, Harris has become one of the most notable champions of continued aid to hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans have streamed out of the state, while thousands have gone to Florida, where the Democratic National Committee gave $100,000 to Florida Democrats to conduct outreach to Puerto Rican voters there. After Harris attached an amendment to a disaster recovery bill that would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to conduct a study on death counts after natural disasters, such as the Puerto Rican government's alleged undercount of deaths in the wake of last year's hurricanes, observers theorize that she is laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign. 

Also, Harris is a co-sponsors of a bill that would establish a "9/11-style" independent commission to investigate the the federal government's response to the two hurricanes that struck Puerto Rico in 2017. Nine months after the storms made landfall, thousands of of people on the island still lack electricity. She was among the first senators to support disaster recovery assistance to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Island. In November, Harris and seven other members of Congress traveled to Puerto Rico to examine the damage and recovery. In public and on Twitter, Harris called on the federal government and public to aid Puerto Rico. 

Because Puerto Rico is not a state, it has limited representation in Congress. Therefore, it relies on senators and House members -- particularly those that are home to large numbers of Puerto Ricans -- for support in Washington. There are few Puerto Ricans in California, but there are large pockets of islanders in crucial Florida, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey. Observers indicate that by placating Puerto Ricans living in the United States mainland, Harris may be boosting her chances of besting Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kirsten Gillbrand (D-NY), all of whom are believed to have presidential ambitions. The largest populations of Puerto Ricans reside in New York and Florida, Florida received thousands of Puerto Ricans after the hurricanes who, Democrats hope, will pull the lever for the eventual Democratic presidential candidate in 2020.

In another sign of the importance that Democrats are placing on Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans is the announcement by Rep.Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, who announced that he will leave Chicago and move to his native Puerto Rico after he finishes his current term in the House of Representatives in January 2019. The firebrand Gutierrez, who is a constant opponent of President Trump, may be setting groundwork for his own run for governor of the island or to assist whichever of the Democrats who emerge as their party's nominee in 2020.

Here follows a partial transcript:

HUNT: A lot of the signs that the rally you just held where people standing there saying "abolish ICE" -- 

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D), CALIFORNIA: Yes.

HUNT: -- is that a position that you agree with? 

HARRIS: Listen, I think there’s no question that we’ve got to critically reexamine ICE and its role and the way it is being administered and the work it is doing, and we need to probably think about starting from scratch because there's a lot that is wrong with the way that it's conducting itself. And we need to deal with that. 

HUNT: What do you think should be the alternative to ICE? 

HARRIS: Well, first of all, I don't think that the government should be in the position of separating families and that is clearly what is part of what's happening at ICE and DHS. You look at what's happening, again, in terms of how they're conducting their perspective on asylum seekers, that is a real problem and is contrary to all of the spirit and the reason that we even have the asylum rules and laws in the first place. 

So, their mission, I think, is very much in question and has to be reexamined. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BREAK)

HUNT: Let's refocus, though, here for a second because I do want to make sure that we keep the focus where it needs to be, which is on these people who are still separated from their families -- these mothers, fathers and, of course, the children. 

I was down on the border because Senator Harris went to visit that detention center to meet with mothers who had been separated from their children. Here's a little bit more of our conversation. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUNT: Senator, you -- I mean, you've had a long career in law enforcement. I mean, can you compare what you saw in this facility to some of the other things you've seen? 

HARRIS: I mean, it's a prison, Kasie, it's a prison. I visited some of the worst prisons in the United States and this is -- it is a prison. You walk in. There are two layers of barbed wire and fence. 

There are people in pods and there's kind of a more maximum security area and then the lower security area. The time I’m spending is to talk with mothers who have been ripped from their children and just -- and the pain, right? I mean, you know, they're sitting with the United States senators so they kind of hold it together and then we start to talk about it and it’s just -- the tears just start flowing. It's awful. 

It's the pain of having to leave the only country they've known, because it was so dangerous. It's the pain of traveling through an unknown land, right, through the country of Mexico, relying on strangers in these caravans. The pain of all that they will be exposed to during that trek, right, not really being in control of much, and the abuse that they may endure. 

And then they arrive, and without even having the ability to yet give their story about the circumstances of their arrival, their children are taken from them and taken to unknown places. It's outrageous and it's inhumane. And it's unnecessary. 

And I think, Kasie, that's one of the most important aspects of this whole issue. It's not necessary. It's actually not necessary. 

But you know why they did it? And this can't be lost in this conversation. They told us why they did it. The administration told us why they did it. They did this to deter others from coming to the country. 

So, you’ve decided to exact what could be a lifetime of trauma over 2,000 children for deterrence of other people? And, you know, it's unconscionable. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BREAK)

HUNT: Across the country, access has been heavily limited to the detention centers where children and families have been kept. Our colleagues like Jacob Soboroff have been allowed in, but never with cameras. 

On Friday, Senator Kamala Harris toured a detention center near the Mexico border, meeting with mothers separated from their children. When she finished there was a massive crowd of demonstrators that had gathered to protest immigration policy but also to listen to her speak. 

We talked about what she saw inside the Otay Mesa Detention Center. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D), CALIFORNIA: It's a detention facility that looks and sounds and smells like a prison. You know, I’m a career prosecutor. I have visited many jails and prisons over my -- the course of my career. 

This is what that is. I mean, literally, this is what that is. There's no distinction between this and a prison in terms of the design of it, in terms of the way people are housed and in terms of the way people are treated. 

The mothers who are there, and they are the parents that I spoke with -- 

HUNT: And they’ve been separated from their children?

HARRIS: They have been separated from their children. The mothers that I spoke with fled Honduras and El Salvador, two of the murder capitals of the world, with their children. They came through Mexico on caravans, arrived on our shore seeking asylum.

And shortly after their arrival, their kids were taken from them, children as young as 5. They don't know where they are. They think they may know, but they get conflicting information. They have not had any regular contact with their children. 

The people who maintain that facility told me that they allow the parents to have phone calls for free without charge. When I sat with the mothers, they said that's absolutely not true. They get charged for their phone calls. 

So, a day of labor, they get paid a dollar. The phone calls are 85 cents a minute. You do the math. 

HUNT: Many of these women are waiting months simply to have their first asylum claim hearing. 

HARRIS; So, many of these women are waiting months to just even have their first hearing to determine if they're eligible for protection and just to understand that that delay delays also their ability to be reunified with their children. 

And, Kasie, I mean, one of the components of this whole issue that is just so heart wrenching is, you know, let's just break this down for anyone who has parented a child, anyone who has been a child, the idea that in those formative years of life in particular, without any explanation, without any notice, without any preparation, a parent would be separated from their child forcefully. I mean, you know, it’s either -- emotionally at least it's by force, and not by physical force. It's incredibly traumatic. 

And so, we are creating layer upon layer of really of harm to these folks. So, to suggest that they are criminals and then, you know, what just really I find maddening is the idea then that we're going to suggest that they're equivalent to MS-13 and transnational criminal organizations is just so wrong and it's just untrue. 

Again, I’ve prosecuted transnational criminal organizations. I’ve focused on transnational criminal organizations who traffic in guns and drugs and human beings. There's no question, prosecute them. But we're talking about moms in this prison who have fled domestic violence, sexual abuse, threats to the safety of their children and their sons, and we're treating them like common criminals. 

HUNT: And recently, the Trump administration made a change that said or is arguing that domestic violence shouldn't be a reason to claim asylum. 

HARRIS: That's right. They’ve said that domestic violence should not be a reason to claim asylum. They have rolled back the protections that existed for pregnant women and there are pregnant women in that prison right now and there are pregnant women in that prison I’m told who have had miscarriages since they've been here over the course of the last couple of months, not to mention on top of all of that what they did in terms of rescinding DACA, which are young people who are in this country who, you know, are here by no fault of their own.

There's a systematic, I think, and clear constellation in policy perspective from this administration as it relates to children and families and women. 

HUNT: A lot of the signs at the rally you just held were people standing there saying abolish ICE. 

HARRIS: Yes.

HUNT: Is that a position that you agree with? 

HARRIS: Listen, I think there’s no question that we’ve got to critically reexamine ICE and its role and the way that it is being administered and the work it is doing, and we need to probably think about starting from scratch because there's a lot that is wrong with the way that it's conducting itself, and we need to deal with that. 

HUNT: What do you think should be the alternative to ICE? 

HARRIS: Well, first of all, I don't think that the government should be in the ability -- in the position of separating families and that is clearly what is part of what's happening at ICE and DHS. You look at what's happening again in terms of how they're conducting their perspective on asylum seekers. That is a real problem and it’s contrary to all of the spirit and the reason that we have the asylum rules and laws in the first place. 

So, their mission, I think, is very much in question and it has to be reexamined. 

HUNT: What measure to see secure the boarder would you support? I mean, clearly, there is a problem with foreign fentanyl. It’s part of the opioid crisis, other things. There are people who have committed crimes who come across the border. 

What should we do to make the border stronger? 

HARRIS: We should just, we -- first of all, let's be clear that for many, many years, we had a net zero immigration issue. Mexico's economy was doing well. So, a lot of this has been contrived, right, by this administration. 

Second, let’s look at the responsibility that this agency has, the Department of Homeland Security. There are important parts of this mission, such as what it should be doing around border and customs and border control as it relates to invasive species. 

Let me tell you, I have a lot of farmers in my state. A lot of farmers in states throughout the country, who are very worried about invasive species that cross the border, and if we're not doing the work of putting resources into the border around protecting fruits and vegetables and things that come across the border that might otherwise threaten our crops, we're going to have a problem. It's a problem for our economy. It’s a problem for the stability of this country. 

I'd like to see them put the resources into that. I'd like to have, certainly, a strong border patrol as it relates to making sure that we are not allowing traffickers to come into this country, and we can do that. But we don't have to separate families. We don't have to have a zero tolerance policy. 

HUNT: You have said before that you want to be a joyful warrior. 

HARRIS: Yes. I do. I really do. 

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: I’m not feeling so joyful at this moment. 

HUNT: That's exactly what I was going to ask you. Have the events of the last week made it hard for you to do that? 

HARRIS: Yes, they have. It’s been -- this has been a rough week I think for a lot of us. And I -- you know, I will say that -- I mean, I said this to a group I was speaking with recently. 

Thank god for a free and independent press, you know? All these folks being down in Texas and here in California and at the border and giving the American public a close-up look at what's really happening as opposed to the rhetoric coming out of this administration. 

But when you see what's happening, it is heart-breaking. I love my country and this is not reflective of who we are. 

HUNT: Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor and potential 2020 candidate, was on Capitol Hill this past week and he did an interview with NBC News where he said President Trump is ruining America. 

Do you think that's true? Is President Trump ruining America? 

HARRIS: Listen, I think that this president is someone who enjoys dividing the country. I think he does. I think he has sadly decided that he gets a lot of applause and he likes the applause when he throws red meat. That's not the sign of a leader. 

A leader of this country should be someone who brings people together, not tears people apart. Be it the families or all of us as Americans.

HUNT: Your colleague Cory Booker was asked about his presidential ambitions recently and he said that after 2018, he'll give it a look. Are you in that same place? 

HARRIS: I’m focused on 2018. 

HUNT: Will you give it a look after 2018? 

HARRIS: I’m looking all around. I’m looking at these fabulous people out here. Hi, guys. 

(LAUGHTER)

HUNT: You're not looking at the White House? 

HARRIS: I mean, listen, right now, I’m focused on this. I’m focused on a lot of other things as a higher priority. 

HUNT: But you're not ruling it out? 

HARRIS: I mean, I don't know. I don't know. I’m not ruling it out, no. 

 

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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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