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MSNBC "The Rachel Maddow Show" - Transcript: Immigration

Interview

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Is it a new era of openness in transparency at the Border Patrol? Is it a new era of openness and transparency at this mammoth agency overall at the Department of Homeland Security? And how on earth can one agency be expected to handle all of these different and huge albeit not unrelated problems?

Joining us now is the man who has to know the answer to that, United States Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.Mr. Secretary, thank you for being here.

JEH JOHNSON, SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: It`s a pleasure, Rachel. Nice to be back on the show.

MADDOW: Thank youI have to ask you first about --

JOHNSON: Where do we start?

MADDOW: Exactly. Well, I`m tempted to ask you where you start every day with the number of things you`re responsible for at DHS. But I want to ask you about those acutely emotional images of those people blocking that bus in Murrieta, California. It`s Department of Homeland Security bus carrying undocumented immigrants.

How -- what is your reaction to seeing them, not just protesting, but turning those buses around?

JOHNSON: Well, it`s important to understand that because of the recent influx of kids and families crossing the border in the Rio Grande Valley sector, our processing capability in that immediate area is full and we`ve had to go to other places across the Southwest simply to process these people. And so, when someone interrupts the ability of the Border Patrol to process a migrant, you`re preventing us from conducting basic health screening and basic background checks on who these people are.It`s a very basic Border Patrol function that we need to perform for law enforcement, health and other reasons for the sake of border security, for the sake of public safety. And so, I look at those images and they are disturbing.

I do have to say, I was in McAllen, Texas, again two days ago for the third time in about a month and a half. And one of the things that`s remarkable about McAllen, Texas, which is sort of at the center of all of this, the community there has been remarkable. The mayor, community leaders, local law enforcement have been remarkably supportive to our Border Patrol and other people there doing their job overtime, and the community on a volunteer spirit has really come together in McAllen.And so, those images that you showed are obviously very concerning. But I`ve been very impressed by how communities in Texas have really come together and given us a tremendous amount of support with this situation we`re dealing with.

MADDOW: In terms of the processing capability, obviously it becomes a much more pressing question, when you have the volume of people coming across in recent months. But do you think that DHS processes people in the right way? Obviously, you said, it`s background checks, it`s health checks. There`s a responsibility to get unaccompanied kids reunited with family members that they may have in this country, or reunited with family members somewhere. Obviously, they can`t all become wards of the state in some way.

I mean, the processing that is done, do you think it`s the right process? Or at a policy level, should that be changed?

JOHNSON: Well, it`s a process required by law. There`s a law passed in 2008 that basically requires us when we identify somebody as an unaccompanied child to turn them over to HHS as you pointed out, and I think that this is a legal requirement, but doing the right things by an unaccompanied child reflects our values as Americans. I`ve spent enough time now in south Texas actually talking directly to these kids, and I`ve spent time with unaccompanied children as young as eight years old, five years old, who have been on a 1,000-mile journey to come to this country.And you can see in their eyes vulnerability and fear that I recognize as a father. And so, there`s a humanitarian aspect to this situation that we simply have to grapple with and come to turns with. So, our response to this needs to reflect our laws and our values.

MADDOW: Why are they coming? I mean, you`ve been there directly, you`re talking to the kids directly, you`re talking with local officials who`ve been dealing with this influx. Obviously, there`s always been some accompanied minors coming across, but there is this just incredible influx. I mean, more than 50,000 kids in a handful of months.

Why is it happening?

JOHNSON: Good question. First and foremost, there`s the push factor of the conditions in their countries. Three quarters of this influx are coming from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The conditions in those countries are very, very difficult right now.

And so, when we talk to the kids, that`s almost the first thing they mention. You know, a child told me that the gang was going to kill me, and so my grandmother or my father told me they had no choice but to send me to the United States to be with the other parent.

So, first and foremost, it`s the conditions in these three countries, because we`re seeing this migration occurring from these three countries.

Second, they clearly know that the law requires that if we identify them as an unaccompanied child, we give them to Health and Human Services, and they place them in a situation that is in the best interest of the child, which very often is with the parent who was already in the United States.

The other factor here is, there`s a considerable amount of misinformation out there, that I believe the smuggling organizations are stoking, because it`s in their interest to do that.

And so, there`s misinformation about free passes, if you come to the United States. And that`s going to expire by the end of May or by the end of June. It`s like the used car salesman the sale ends at the end of the week.

And so, the smuggling organizations are putting out a large amount of I believe misinformation about --

MADDOW: To get their money now.

JOHNSON: --the legal regime that exists in the United States.And so, I and others keep saying publicly that DACA, which is the program two years that we created for children, is for kids who came to this country seven years ago, and the legislation that the Senate passed last year, the earned path to citizenship, is for those who have been in this country already for a year and a half. And those programs are not
available for somebody who crosses the border today or tomorrow.And so, we`ve had to do a lot of correcting the record. But we`re also telling parents about the dangers of doing this journey. Sending your child on an 1,100 or 1,300-mile trip along the East Coast of Mexico, on top of a freight train in the hands of a smuggling organization, is very dangerous.

MADDOW: And they may end up going back home at the end of it.Secretary Johnson, will you stay for a moment?

JOHNSON: Yes.

MADDOW: Thank you. I want to talk to you about Border Patrol. And also, the announcement that you made today about airport security and some other stuff going on.

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Joining us now is technically the head of FEMA, the Coast Guard, the Border Patrol, the TSA, the Secret Service, Immigration and Customs, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center and all of the rest of it, at least to the extent that he is the cabinet secretary who oversees that giant agency, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson back with us.

I don`t know if that`s supposed to make you feel good or bad, but that`s too overwhelming.

I want to ask you about one part of Homeland Security, which is a large law enforcement agency and that`s the Border Patrol. It is the most opaque law enforcement agency that operates domestically that I know of. Specifically on the issue of use of force, we know from outside sources there have been dozens incidents of Border Patrols shooting and killing people.

There`s never been any official information released about even one of those shootings. There`s never been one single complaint process for people to deal with about concerns about use or over use of force? Are you concerned about how opaque that agency is?

JOHNSON: I know from my Department of Defense experience that transparency goes a long way. An armed force, a law enforcement force or military force that operates with a lack of transparency is a force that -- you threaten to undermine the entire mission if there`s not accountability and transparency.

And so I`ve been very pleased that CBP has taken certain steps towardtransparency. We`ve made public, as I think you pointed out in your lead- in, the use of force policy.

MADDOW: Yes.

JOHNSON: We made public the independent report on use of force in the Border Patrol. The Commissioner Kerlikowske is making some changes in internal affairs within CBP.

So, I think we`re moving in a positive direction. We rewrote our use of force policies for the Border Patrol, to more explicitly deal with the problem of rock throwing and threats to Border Patrol agents by vehicles.

I made clear to the Border Patrol, I don`t want you to do anything to undermine your agent`s ability to defend themselves in situations where it`s warranted. But transparency can go a long way with the general population. So, I think with my encouragement, the Commissioner Kerlikowske has made a lot of positive steps in this direction. We`re going to continue that.

MADDOW: I would say just -- speaking for myself as a member of the media, the fact that Customs and Border Patrol doesn`t engage with the media on these issues at all many when they get asked about a shooting incident, there`s not even a no comment. There`s nothing on background. There`s no official data to resort to at all, it doesn`t feel there`s any watchdog in this issue, and maybe that`s because the population that`s most in contact with Border Patrol agents is powerless. But just in terms of democracy it`s --

JOHNSON: I think we`re moving in the right direction.

MADDOW: In terms of the directions right now, in which this large amount of migrant kids and families is being held on the border, do you have concerns about whether or not your agency has been able to upscale your physical capacity to hold them in a way that`s humane?

JOHNSON: We searched capacity in the last couple of months. Every time I go down there, I`m impressed that -- in a first of all, we quickly fill the space that we create with the influx of people. But our Border Patrol people day in and day out I think are doing a remarkable job with what I`ve seen. They`re doing above and beyond the call, beyond the basic Border Patrol processing mission to deal with this large amount of people and kids.

I think they`re doing a remarkable job.

MADDOW: Let me asking something else unrelated to the border when Department of Homeland Security was created, it was in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. And that protecting the homeland from terrorist attacks is very essentially to just the mission of the agency, but the whole reason the agency was created in a first place. You put out a statement today about increased airport security at overseas airports that have direct flights to the United States.

What are the concerns that led to those steps and should we see this as the first in a number of steps?

JOHNSON: We continually evaluate the world situation, and we not infrequently make changes to aviation security, we either step it up or we feel sometimes we`re in a position to dial it back. And so, this is something that happens periodically and people should not overreact to it or over speculation about what`s going on but there clearly are concerns centered around aviation security that we need to be vigilant about. There is a terrorist threat to this country that remains, and I believe that counterterrorism needs to be the cornerstone of our mission -- our vast mission that you`ve pointed out.

And aviation security is something that we still have a fair amount of concerns about. And so, we continually evaluate the world situation, if we think there are improvements we can and should make without unnecessarily disrupting the traveling public we`ll do that.

MADDOW: It`s been reported in relation to the fighting in Iraq, that this group, ISIS, one of the things particularly dangerous about them in an international context is that they`ve been able to attract fighters who have Western passports. Is that led to an increase threat assessment?

JOHNSON: We`ve been looking at Syria for a while. In a speech I said, a speech I gave in February, I said Syria had become a matter of homeland security. And we in national security are concerned about the foreign fighter flow, going into Syria in particular, from the United States, from European countries, other countries, and we`re tracking that population, and very concerned about it because there are extremists within the borders of Syria that would like to indoctrinate these people and send them back to their countries with a different purpose.

So, we`re having to spend a lot of time tracking these individuals and talking to our foreign allies about the same problem.

MADDOW: Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, I know taking this much to do this long an interview is a lot to ask for a guy with this much on his plate as you do. Thank you very much.

JOHNSON: It`s been a pleasure. Thanks, Rachel.

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