RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There's a crisis at the border - familiar words from President Trump. That is also how Jeh Johnson describes the situation. He was the secretary of Homeland Security under President Obama. Johnson faced a spike in illegal migration in 2014, similar to the surge in border crossings happening today. Jeh Johnson joins us now. Mr. Secretary, thanks for being here.
JEH JOHNSON: Rachel, thanks for having me.
MARTIN: In 2014, when you were heading up the Department of Homeland Security, total apprehensions at the border topped 68,000. Now we are up around those same levels. What are the mistakes the federal government keeps making?
JOHNSON: Well, first of all, lesson learned for me in three years owning this problem is you have to address illegal migration, spikes in illegal migration, at the source. The push factors, the poverty and violence in Central America, simply overwhelms the system. And we can do things on our southern border to deter illegal migration. But as long as the underlying conditions exist, the poverty and violence - and this is the most violent region of the world - as long as those conditions exist, families are making the very basic human calculation to flee a burning building.
We got started on investing and eradicating the poverty and violence with funding from Congress in FY16 of $750 million with a lot of strings attached, obviously. And I'm told by people within DHS, my former department, that that investment is beginning to show positive signs. So suspending aid to Central America, as President Trump is threatening to do, in my judgment, is the exact wrong thing to do.
We also got help from the government of Mexico in 2014 to secure their southern border with Central America. And once the Mexicans put additional border security in place on their southern border, we saw a very sharp downturn in the numbers that were crossing the border then. So there are a number of things we can do, including investments on our southern border in smart border security and...
JOHNSON: So go ahead.
MARTIN: Well, I want to get back to the issue of addressing the root problems through foreign aid assistance to reduce poverty and violence in these countries. At what point do you say, this is enough? I mean, how do you measure the actual impact on the decisions people make to flee those countries and come to the U.S.? I mean, can any amount of aid money eradicate those problems?
JOHNSON: Well, certainly, aid money can reduce the problem. You know, a good precedent is what we refer to as Plan Colombia. So it can be done. And the three countries - Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras - are smaller, more discrete situations, so it can be done. Will we ever eliminate illegal migration completely? No, of course not. But we can greatly reduce it.
The levels of illegal migration, by the way, over the last 18 years have fallen off quite considerably. But this recent spike begins to look like what we used to deal with 18 years ago with apprehensions at the level of 100,000 in a month. That's considerable. And that's obviously overwhelming the system right now.
MARTIN: The Obama administration did some of the same things the Trump administration is doing - I mean, to lesser degrees. But you ended up expanding family detention. What effect did that have on the overall numbers of people coming over the border?
JOHNSON: We expanded family detention. You're correct. When I was in office, I was surprised to learn that out of 34,000 beds, we only had 95 detention beds for families. And so we expanded that. And anecdotally, we saw that families were surprised that we had done that and were calling back home to Central America to say that they were being detained. And so I'm quite sure...
MARTIN: But it - does it change people's calculus?
JOHNSON: Well, in the short term, it does. In - you can do things on our southern border and change enforcement policy that will have a short-term effect and a drop-off in the numbers. So after we did a number of things in 2014, we saw a drop in the numbers for about a year, a year and a half. But then, as long as the underlying conditions exist, the numbers will always revert back to their longer-term trends. And that's what President Trump is seeing right now.
MARTIN: We heard elsewhere in our program this morning from an ICE agent on the border, a longtime official named Jack Staton. And I want to play a bit from that interview for you. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
JACK STATON: When you really look at this, and you break it down, it's economic in nature. These individuals want a better life. They want to be able to make more money. So they're going to come up. If they think they're going to get to stay here, which is what they believe is going to happen, that's the reason you have these sheer numbers coming up right now.
MARTIN: How do you respond to people who say that the Obama administration's policies and the softer rhetorical line coming from Democrats now is why so many migrants think they will be able to stay when they get here?
JOHNSON: Well, President Trump has owned this issue for over two years now. And it's his responsibility and his secretary of Homeland Security responsibility to enforce our immigration laws. And they've had that responsibility for over two years now. And plainly, not withstanding the harsh rhetoric coming from the president and his administration, these migrants are still making the basic calculation to come here at levels we have not seen in 12 years. And again, I keep coming back to this. It's the underlying conditions that are the principal reason why migrants make this basic judgment to try to come here.
MARTIN: The president is threatening to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border. Do you think that's the right move?
JOHNSON: You cannot shut down a 1,900-mile border. The most he can do is close our ports of entry - the bridges in and out of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. And if you do that, you're simply driving illegal migration away from the ports of entry onto land borders. And people will cross - we'll know less about them. That's not a good idea in my judgment.
MARTIN: Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. Thanks for your time this morning.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
MARTIN: And we turn now to NPR's Joel Rose who covers immigration and was listening into that conversation. Joel, what struck you?
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Well, I was thinking about the Obama administration, which had its own migrant crisis, as you mentioned, back in 2014 - starting in 2014 with a spike in unaccompanied children showing up at the border. And one of the things that the Obama White House tried to do back then to deter those children from coming was to try to make it easier to detain and to deport migrant kids, which is something that the Trump administration is trying to do again now. The courts did not let the Obama administration do it then.
They're not likely to let the Trump administration do it now either. But it strikes me that, you know, immigration hardliners say that's something that was missing from the Obama response. And hardliners would say it's one of the reasons that we continue to see migrants coming here because they know that, you know, they'll have a chance to be in the country while they're waiting for their asylum claims to be heard in immigration court. And you know, hardliners would argue that is one of the pull factors that, you know, is allowing this crisis to continue.
MARTIN: NPR immigration reporter Joel Rose for us this morning. Joel, thanks. We appreciate it.
ROSE: Oh. Yeah, you're welcome.
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