MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Let's turn now to the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border and the Trump administration's zero tolerance crackdown on people who cross into the U.S. illegally. U.S. officials say they are detaining and prosecuting every person caught and separating children from their parents.
We're going to hear next from a defender of this policy which is sparking all kinds of controversy. Devin O'Malley is spokesman for the Department of Justice, and he joins us now from there, from the Justice Department itself. Devin O'Malley, welcome. Thanks for your time today.
DEVIN O'MALLEY: Thanks, Mary Louise. Happy to be with you.
KELLY: Happy to have you with us. Let me start with the stated goal of this policy. The Trump administration says the goal is deterrence. Is there evidence that people are being deterred?
O'MALLEY: Sure. Well, so let's step back first. So in April - at the beginning of April, the attorney general announced a zero tolerance policy where the Department of Justice, the U.S. attorneys offices along the southwest border would prosecute every case of illegal entry that was referred to them by the Department of Homeland Security. The following month, the homeland security secretary announced a policy where they would refer a hundred percent of their apprehensions to the Department of Justice. So this policy has only been in effect for about a month, and we believe that long-term - that we will see a deterrent effect of this policy. But right now, it's really too early to look at whether or not this has had a deterrent effect.
KELLY: Safe to say that these zero tolerance policies - the separating parents from their children, deploying the National Guard troops at the border - they're not having an immediate effect.
O'MALLEY: Again, I think that it's too early to tell. I did mention the April numbers held at the same level - the March 2018 numbers. I think that that's...
KELLY: Those were high numbers, though.
O'MALLEY: Absolutely. But listen; you - you're - you are raising very good points - is that we have very high levels of people attempting to enter the country illegally, and we believe that we are taking the appropriate measures to get back down to low levels.
KELLY: Let me turn you to another point, a key point that critics of this policy make, which is that it is cruel. Here's Cecilia Munoz speaking to NPR last week. She was President Obama's point person on immigration.
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CECILIA MUNOZ: It is just outrageous to suggest that we can come up with decent care for kids when they're being separated from their parents, especially when we're talking about in many cases parents who've brought those children to save their lives. I don't have words for how reprehensible that policy is.
KELLY: Devin O'Malley, setting aside for the moment whether this policy will prove an effective tool or not to deter illegal immigration, is it cruel?
O'MALLEY: I think the attorney general in this administration has been very clear that if people who wish to flee persecution in their countries, whether it be Central America or elsewhere, they have the opportunity to arrive at ports of entry or visit consulates in Mexico. They also have the opportunity to seek asylum in Mexico. There are...
KELLY: He's made the case if you don't want to be separated from your children, don't try to enter the U.S. illegally. But my question is, is a - is this in the best interest of these children?
O'MALLEY: Well, I do want to be clear that this is not really a choice. The government does not have a choice. When someone illegally enters the country, the United States Marshals Service cannot place a child in a criminal detention facility with their parent. And this is the same policy and process that is applied to anyone who is charged with a crime across the United States irrespective of immigration status.
KELLY: But to stick with this specific immigration crackdown, do you believe the law requires separating children from their parents?
O'MALLEY: I do. If we are to have...
KELLY: But the law hasn't changed, and the Obama administration chose a radically different interpretation of what this law requires the U.S. government to do.
O'MALLEY: So, yeah, I think that's a good point, Mary Louise, and let me unpack that. First, I think if you look at the practices of the Obama administration, there were times when they did separate families. This is something that has been done for many years. And for decades, illegally entering this country has been in violation of federal statute. That is the law that Congress gave us. But...
KELLY: Although you yourself just described this as new rules that have only been in effect for a few weeks.
O'MALLEY: Well, the zero tolerance policy...
KELLY: This is a new - this a different way of interpreting the policy than the Trump administration was at the beginning of this year.
O'MALLEY: I'm not following your question there.
KELLY: I'm trying to square when you say this is - the law requires you to do a certain thing. The law hasn't changed, and yet these are new rules that have been put into effect so recently that you say it's too soon to tell whether they will be effective or not.
O'MALLEY: Well, the zero tolerance policy across all of the U.S. attorneys districts in the United States is a new policy. It's a new policy as of April 6, 2018. There were variations of zero tolerance that were implemented in the prior administration in certain sectors along the border. But this was not a policy that they implemented across the southwest border, if that helps clarify.
KELLY: So you're arguing there's no discretion. The law demands you to separate families in this way.
O'MALLEY: Congress made it illegal for a person to enter the United States between a port of entry, and the Department of Justice, through their zero tolerance policy, is prosecuting a hundred percent of those cases to the extent practical. When that happens, when there is a family unit, when the adult is charged with criminal illegal entry, the United States Marshals are not authorized by Congress to place that child in a criminal detention facility with their families, so it does require of the federal government to place the child in the care and custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.
KELLY: Last question, and it's a practical one - if an adult is caught, is processed, is deported, what is the Justice Department doing to make sure that the child also goes back, that the child is reunited with their family? I'm asking because we're speaking with activists and human rights groups working with people on the border saying they're looking at children who've - who were waiting months to go home, to be reunited with their parents.
O'MALLEY: Well, I can't speak to those examples without knowing which ones they are. I know as a matter of practice, when an adult makes their way through the criminal prosecution process, they usually plead guilty to illegal entry, and they are generally sentenced to time served. And then when applicable, that process of reunification is started. And, you know, frankly, the administration is working with a number of laws and court orders that make it difficult to facilitate that reunification. But it is always done and attempted to be done, and that is the ultimate goal - to reunify families.
KELLY: Justice Department spokesman Devin O'Malley, thanks for your time.
O'MALLEY: Thanks so much.
KELLY: And elsewhere in the show today, we will hear a counterview from the first Latina member of the U.S. Senate, Nevada Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto.
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