Jeh Johnson said on Sunday that during his tenure as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security during the Barack Obama administration, federal officials detained illegal immigrant minors and separated them from their families, while some families were kept together. Both of those policies have been severely criticized by President Donald Trump's detractors. In an interview with show host Chris Wallace, Johnson averred that they "thought it was necessary at the time," and that it is still is. "Without a doubt the images, and the reality, from 2014, just like 2018, are not pretty," Johnson told Wallace. "We expanded it, I freely admit it was controversial, we believed it was necessary at the time, I still believe it is necessary to remain a certain capability for families." During the program, a clip showed Trump saying of the Democrats, "They just want everyone to be released into our country no matter how dangerous they are. They can be killers, they can be thieves, they can be horrible people. The Democrats say it's OK for them to be in our country."
Partial transcript follows:
WALLACE: Mr. Secretary, does the president have a point?
JEH JOHNSON, FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Chris, first of all, thanks for having me on.
Chris, I’m not going to go down the road of the normal Washington blame game, Trump versus Obama, Obama versus Bush, or what have you.
We have an underlying humanitarian crisis on our southern border that we must deal with and in Central America. The high in illegal migration was 18 years ago. It is now a fraction of what used to be, but the demographic has changed. It's women and children coming from Central America.
As you point out, we saw a spike in 2014. We did a number of things to deal with it. We have the second lowest number in apprehensions on our southern border in 2015, since 1972. But then the number started to creep up again and so, this is a problem that is international in scope.
I applaud Mike McCaul for his leadership on the bill he discussed with you, but we've got to address this problem at the root cause. In Central America, the poverty and violence in Central America that motivates women and children to come here in the first place. We started on that in the Congress two years ago and I hope Congress continues on that road.
WALLACE: Well, and we’ll get to that a little bit later. But obviously, you’re not going to solve the problems quickly, which are pretty systemic in Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador.
JOHNSON: Without a doubt.
WALLACE: I want to talk to about some specifics. I’m not playing the political blame game, I’m talking about issues and one of them the president says in the Trump administration part of the problem is a measure that was written by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein in 2008 that became law. If a minor, an unaccompanied minor or child comes across the border from Mexico or Canada, we can send them immediately back to their country, but under the Feinstein amendment, if it's a noncontiguous country like Central America, not right on our border, they can't be sent back immediately.
Hasn't that contributed especially to the spike in unaccompanied minors coming into this country over the last few years?
JOHNSON: Chris, what you’re referring to is the TVPRA passed in 2008 and as you pointed out, it does say that an unaccompanied child from Central America, noncontiguous country, cannot be sent back immediately. Now, there's a certain amount of common sense behind that because you can't just simply send an unaccompanied child back across the southern border into Mexico. You cannot repatriate a Guatemalan to Mexico.
And so, that law, which has a certain level of protections for children. We are talking about unaccompanied children, 5 and 6-year-old kids. It requires that the Department of Homeland Security place that child with HHS within 48 hours. A deportation proceeding is commenced and the child has a right through a lawyer to assert a claim for asylum.
WALLACE: Secretary Johnson, the fact is, you know, we’ve talked all about the children who are separated from their families. Of the 12,000 children that are in the system, 2,000 our children separated from families, 10,000 are unaccompanied minors. Perhaps unintended consequence of this amendment is that unaccompanied minors have flooded the area, a lot of them brought by coyote smugglers into the country.
JOHNSON: Well, Chris, even if that law did not exist, it would not be simply a matter of expediting the removal of an unaccompanied child. There are certain due process rights that they have anyway and when we repatriate somebody, and the Trump administration knows this, when you repatriate somebody to Central America, Central America has to agree to take them back. You have to put them on planes. It's a very measured process.
So, the TVPRA in 2008 was put in place to make certain that we treat unaccompanied children -- we’re talking about unaccompanied children -- in a fair way.
WALLACE: I understand that.
Let's look -- because you mentioned it -- at how the Obama administration and you as secretary of homeland security handle this back in 2014 when there was also a spike in children, most of them unaccompanied coming across the border. You started jailing entire families. In some cases, not a lot, but in some, you separated children from their parents in these pictures that we are putting up, from 2014, show pictures of unaccompanied minors in effect jail situations.
As you look back on that, did you handle it so well?
JOHNSON: Well, Chris, without a doubt the images and the reality from 2014 just like 2018 are not pretty. And so, we expanded family detention. We had then 34,000 beds for family detention, only 95 of 34,000 equipped to deal with families.
So, we extended it. I freely admit it was controversial. We believed it was necessary at the time. I still believe it is necessary to name (ph) a certain capability for families. We can't have catch and release and in my three years we deported, or repatriated or returned over a million people.
But, again, you can deal with this on the border. You can try different things. We did not want to go so far as to separate families. But unless we deal with the underlying causes that are motivating people to come here in the first place we are going to continue to bang our heads against the wall on this issue.
WALLACE: All right. Let's look at the problem that President Trump is trying to address right now. Let's put it up on the screen: 40,000 to 50,000 people across the border illegally each month. Last month, 9,500 family members crossed the border illegally and up to 40,000 unaccompanied minors cross per year.
When I was talking this week to a top member of the Trump administration, he -- and I told him you were going to be on show, he said, I have one question for Secretary Johnson: what is the Democrat solution? How would they deal?
I mean, it's easy to say, well, we've got to fix Central America. But come on, that isn't going to solve the 40,000, 50,000 coming each month.
JOHNSON: Well --
WALLACE: Certainly not anytime soon. How would you deal with that flood of people coming over the border now?
JOHNSON: Well, I’ll tell you of Jeh Johnson's solution. Continue our border security efforts. Give the border control, give immigration enforcement the tools they need, but let's not go so far as two separate families.
But also continue what Congress started two years ago, aid to Central America to deal with the property and violence and also encourage other countries in the region, Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, to develop their own systems for asylum, for refugee processing.
It was someone from the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops who told me in 2014 you can't just simply padlock a burning building without providing people with an alternative path to safety. And so, we need to develop those additional paths for getting --
WALLACE: But, sir, that isn’t -- respectfully, that isn't going to solve the problem anytime soon. It won't solve it for months. It probably wouldn't solve it for years if we put $750 million, which is what we did during the Obama administration into foreign aid in those three countries. They are pretty broken countries.
You've got a real crisis on the border with 50,000 people a month, 600,000 people a year coming across the border. How do you stop that? And what's wrong with zero-tolerance, the idea you come across the border, you broke the law, we’re going to prosecute you?
JOHNSON: Three things: first, Chris, you’re right, there are no easy fixes to this problem. And Washington is bad at investing in long-term solutions.
Number two, history will tell you, lessons learned, lessons learned in 2014, you can do certain things that will drive down illegal migration in the short term as we did in 2014, but then the longer term patterns always revert to form. The numbers always creep back up.
President Trump himself saw that in 2017, the numbers went down dramatically and then they are back up again. And so, you can do these things, but we've got to make the longer-term investment in dealing with illegal migration generally. And if we don't do that, we are going to continue to have this problem.
WALLACE: One final question, because the practical result of the program that the Obama administration put in was that you had to release. You caught and had to release some of the people with a promise and sometimes an ankle bracelet that they would come back.
I want to put back some numbers on the screen because according to government numbers, 74 percent of those who were released showed up for their hearings last year, but that still left almost 40,000 people who didn't show up for deportation hearings. So, catch and release, which is what the practical effect was under the Obama administration, and until this year for the Trump administration, that doesn't really work either, does it?
JOHNSON: Well, without a doubt it's a problem, Chris, which is one of the reasons we expanded family detention, which was controversial.
WALLACE: And was knocked down by the court. That's the reason we got this 20-day ruling. It was because of the Obama administration's policy.
JOHNSON: Well, we expanded family detention and then we ran into the issue of the Flores case, which you mentioned a moment ago. I disagreed then with the ruling in the Flores case because I think that our border patrol and our immigration enforcement people need those tools available to deal with situations like this.
But it's the sheer matter of numbers, Chris. Right now, we have family detention capability for about 3,000 or 4,000 people, and you've got over a thousand migrants crossing the border a day in Central America. And so, even if you emptied it out completely today, it would fill back up in a matter of days.
JOHNSON: So, there you are. This is not an easy problem, which is why we need to invest and address the underlying causes.
WALLACE: Secretary Johnson, thank you. Thanks for joining us today. Always good to talk with you, sir.
Spero News writer 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.