ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We're going to hear now from the man in charge of implementing President Trump's immigration enforcement agenda. It's a busy time at Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Deportations far from the border increased 25 percent in the last year. Homeland security wants money to increase the number of beds in immigration detention centers. And this comes as Congress struggles to rework immigration policy before another government shutdown deadline.
Thomas Homan is the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He has worked in immigration enforcement for more than 30 years. Welcome to the program.
THOMAS HOMAN: Thank you very much for having me.
SHAPIRO: Congress is working right now on what should happen to DACA recipients, people who were brought to the U.S. as young children. President Trump floated a path to citizenship when he put out a new framework for immigration legislation last night. The right wing of his party has balked at that. And in the meantime, thousands of DACA recipients have already lost their coverage. So I want to ask you whether those people are at risk of being deported today.
HOMAN: Well, as a law enforcement agency, we have to prioritize what we do. And if you look at the FY17 numbers we rolled out, it clearly shows that 89 percent of everybody we arrested has sort - some sort of criminal history. So if those DACA recipients - I mean, if they're in the country illegally, they can be arrested. However, we do prioritize our work. So if a DACA recipient lost his status and went and committed a crime, of course they would rise on our list of priorities.
But 92 percent of everybody we arrested fell into three buckets - either they're a criminal or they're a fugitive or they're re-entry. If the message we want to continue to send to the world is you can violate the laws of this country, come here and we use billions of dollars a year to enforce immigration law and give you due process that you deserve, and the judge makes a decision - you would be removed from the country.
But if you want to have a U.S. citizen child by virtue that you gave birth to a child in this country, that now you're immune from the criminal justice system, now you're immune from enforcement, now you virtually get amnesty, then you're never going solve the illegal immigration crisis. We've got to send a clear message.
SHAPIRO: I've spoken to people whose DACA coverage has lapsed who are afraid that if they attend a march or grant an interview with their name they will be deported. Now, I know you've said those people are not priorities, but are you saying that if they don't have any criminal run-ins they won't be deported even if they speak out publicly and advocate and give interviews and march?
HOMAN: Look; there's - first of all, again, we prioritize what we do. Criminals and public safety threats come first. But for those people that are, you know, found to be in the country illegally, they're not off the table. They can be arrested. But we do it in a prioritized manner.
SHAPIRO: You're not giving a blanket reassurance that DACA recipients will be OK if their coverage has expired. You're saying they're not a priority, but you're not saying a hundred percent you're going to be fine.
HOMAN: If we encounter them during a targeted enforcement operation - like, we're out looking for a criminal alien and we run into somebody that has lost their DACA status, we will take action, put them in front of an immigration judge and let the immigration judge make that determination. But we will not turn a blind eye to somebody that we find during our enforcement operations that's in the country illegally.
SHAPIRO: I'd like to ask you about another detail in the White House's framework for immigration legislation. They've called for $25 billion to build a border wall system. And that word system is broad. So I wonder what you would most like to see that money spent on.
HOMAN: Well, first of all, I do support a wall. I've been doing this work for 34 years. And I did start out in the border patrol. And I've been in places where there wasn't a wall. And I've been in places where there was a wall.
SHAPIRO: But the question is, does wall mean brick and mortar? Or does wall mean drones and electronic surveillance and more border agents and all kinds of other things?
HOMAN: It's a combination, right? There's going to be places there's going to be a wall. It's going to be places where it's going to electronics. Like, you can't put a wall in the middle of the Rio Grande. So I'm just speaking from my own experience. Every place they have built a wall or a barrier it has worked. One hundred percent of the time illegal migration has decreased wherever there's a barrier put.
SHAPIRO: Do you think $25 billion is the right number? Democrats have said it's too high. Do you know where the number came from? Is it something you've been asking for specifically?
HOMAN: No. And I haven't been involved with the financing of the wall, how much the wall will cost. And, you know, my personal opinion is what's too much? I mean, what cost do you put on public safety and national security? I think we're a sovereign country. We have a right to protect this nation. But as far as the cost of the wall and where they came up with that 25 billion, I wouldn't know that. You have to get that from CBP.
SHAPIRO: Customs and Border Protection. President Trump has said he would like to get illegal border crossings down to zero. Meanwhile, there are an estimated 11 million people already in the country illegally. And I wonder whether you have a target number for what you would like that population to get to from the current 11 million figure.
HOMAN: There is no target number, I think. Again, I think we've got to concentrate on finding those that are either a national security threat or a public safety threat first. Then we need to work our way back down, right? We need to look at - for the fugitives, those that have their due process refused to leave the United States. But I don't think there's any magic number. I think if we can take the magnets away and really address the underlying reasons for illegal immigration, and we take the magnets away like, you know, employment - make it harder to get a job. That's one of the reasons they come to this country.
SHAPIRO: You mean the reasons people come, the magnets like jobs and...
HOMAN: Exactly. But I think - look. I don't have the resources to arrest 11 million people, so that's why we prioritize what we do. It takes a lot of things. Like right now we're talking about negotiation on DACA. And I've been very clear the last couple weeks. From my perspective, you can't have a clean DACA bill. You need to - if you're going to talk about DACA, you need to talk about the underlying reasons people come to the United States.
So we need to talk about changes in policies and changes in laws and the loopholes in the system that people take advantage of and look at the magnets that bring people here. This year, under this president, we've had a 45-year lull of illegal immigration coming across the southwest border. And that's not a coincidence. That's because we're enforcing laws as they're written.
If we don't talk about the reasons for illegal immigration, in 10 years from now we're going to be back at the table talking about the next DACA population because I've done this for 34 years. I've seen this happen over and over again. So we've made significant progress this year. We certainly have the knowledge and the ability to fix this. We just need the willpower. So I'm hoping we can have a true discussion with Congress and address some of these issues this year.
SHAPIRO: When you talk about eliminating the magnets that bring people across the border, you mentioned undocumented immigrants who have U.S. citizen children. Do you consider that to be one of the magnets?
HOMAN: No. Well, if you're asking me, do some illegal aliens come to this country to have a child, that child's going to be a United States citizen? That is one factor. Of course it is.
SHAPIRO: Is that something that you think is a magnet that should be gotten rid of?
HOMAN: You know, that's - again, you know, I have my personal opinions on things. And - but as the director of ICE I'm the head of a law enforcement agency. And my job is to enforce the laws enacted by Congress. So I'll tell you this. I will enforce any law enacted by Congress, and I'll stop enforcing any law that Congress repeals. I mean, that's my job. I mean, I've got to separate myself. And that's often something that gets ignored by a lot of people. They want to vilify the men and women of ICE, including me, for doing the jobs - doing our job by enforcing laws enacted by Congress. That is our job. And people say, well, you know, you don't have a heart.
Let me tell you, son. Every person that works for me has a heart. I certainly feel bad for the plight of some of these people. But I got a job to do. So I'm enforcing laws. You know, if people don't like what we do or how we do it, then rather than protesting out in front of my building or vilifying the men - brave men and women of ICE that leave the safety and security of their home every day to put their lives on the line in this country, talk to your congressmen and senators. Tell them to change the law because, again, I only enforce laws they enact, and I stop enforcing laws they repeal.
SHAPIRO: Thomas Homan is acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Thanks so much for your time.
HOMAN: Thank you very much, sir.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the interview, Thomas Homan said ICE “will not turn a blind eye to somebody that we find during our enforcement operations that's in the country illegally.” A previous version of the transcript was incorrect. He did not say “in the country legally.”]
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