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CNN "CNN Newsroom" - Transcript: Interview with Representative Peter Welch

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[10:33:50] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. Congressman Peter Welch, a Democrat from Vermont, went to the southern border in Texas to see firsthand what the children are experiencing. The children being held away from their parents. He described the troubling conditions that he saw firsthand in an op-ed this morning and he joins me now.

Thank you for being here, Congressman.


HARLOW: Can you walk me through what you were allowed to see?

WELCH: Well, quite a bit. This is led by Senator Merkley and he'd been turned away two weeks earlier. So this time we were allowed in to several locations. And basically where people were being held is in warehouses, they're clean. But there is no windows. And when you go inside, there are chain link fences that in effect are cages.

So -- and the kids, all the people there are segregated by age, by gender, and what we saw was a lot of kids in cages. We weren't allowed to talk to them, but, you know, the real issue here is these kids are removed from their parents. So they're bewildered and they're scared. And one incident really stood out in my mind, it was three boys, and I assume they were brothers, and they're on these thin mats that are provided.

[10:35:03] And like spoon style, they're holding on to each other for dear life with no idea where their parents were. So that's a pretty searing sight. And this is something where it's not a Republican- Democrat thing. Any parent is all about saving and keeping safe their son or daughter. So, everyone, I think, in America identifies with what it would be like to have your child taken away and then you don't know where he or she is.

HARLOW: And we're looking at some of these images just provided by the government. Of course you weren't allowed to take pictures, we're not allowed in to take pictures. All we have is what the government has provided us from some of these facilities.

The president, this morning, Congressman, I'm not sure if you saw it or not, but the president this morning writes, "We cannot allow our country to be overrun by illegal immigrants as the Democrats tell their phony stories of sadness and grief."

He is asserting, sir, that the stories you are sharing about these conditions, about what these kids are going through, are phony, they're fake, and you're doing it for political expediency. What do you say to that?

WELCH: Well, that's just flat-out bizarre. I mean, we also met with 10 women, mothers, who had made this incredible decision to leave Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, because they were terrified. They are not gang members. They're fleeing gang violence. And they were so concerned about getting killed or their son or daughter getting killed that they made this trip and presented themselves to a country where they still -- in their minds see as a hope for a better future.

And where the president may be right, we can't take everybody, every asylum request, we can't. So it's a hard issue to deal with. But the remedy cannot include putting kids in cages, taking them from their parents. They're totally innocent. So the president knows that. It's a tough problem. But to use words like invade, infest, vermin, rapists, all of that, where it's these desperate mothers by and large with a son or daughter, just makes it much more difficult to solve what is a very challenging problem.

HARLOW: What the Trump administration is now asking a federal judge to do is to decide that children can be held with their parents in these facilities, these detention centers, until the case is heard, right? Until the criminal prosecution goes through. And that could be indefinitely. That could be months, that could be years.

It is also something that the Obama administration in 2015 asked the same judge to grant. And that judge said no, because of the Flores settlement, these kids have to be released within 20 days. So Republicans point to Democrats in this, and they say look, where were Democrats like you crying out when these -- when the Obama administration was asking for these families to be held indefinitely if necessary. What is your response to that criticism?

WELCH: Well, I mean, there's two things. First of all, the Flores settlement won't solve the problem. The kids weren't held, so you didn't have the situation where by administration policy, by President Trump's policy the explicit decision was to take kids from parents. So we didn't have that. The second thing is that -- as I mentioned earlier, there is innocent kids here. And what the president by his own words said he was doing is this family separation policy was going to give him leverage to try to get Congress to pass his version of border security.

And I think these border security issues, what kind of immigration system we have, he's entitled to his position. We can have a fair and square debate about that. But what he doesn't have a right to do and we don't have a right to do is implicate innocent children, the Dreamers and these kids, in that equation.

HARLOW: What are you willing to give on this? Because both Democrats and Republicans say we have to compromise, we have to reach a solution. But -- (CROSSTALK)

WELCH: Well, there's -- go ahead.

HARLOW: What will you give? Right? Will you -- will you agree to border funding for a wall? Will you agree to the $25 billion that the president wants for this wall if you get what you want on family separation ending, for example, and a path to citizenship for Dreamers in this country?

WELCH: Well, first of all, I'm definitely in favor of funding for border security. The wall is a metaphor because there are some places where it just doesn't make sense. There is some places where physical barrier makes an awful lot of sense. So the Senate bill that was passed a few years ago they have border security funding, including for physical barriers.

HARLOW: It was different, though. I mean, but you're saying you won't allocate, you won't vote for something that allocates $25 billion to a wall, correct?

WELCH: No. I wouldn't. That is correct. But here's the thing that really is making this issue already difficult, almost impossible. You see the president's language talking about infesting, invading, and demeaning to Hispanics.

[10:40:07] Number two, we should not be using children, the Dreamers or these kids, as a bargaining chip. They're innocent. And this is where in Congress we go off the rails. We have contentious issues and then as leverage, you bring in extraneous, in this case, kids, who are innocent and you say, I'll give you the freedom for these kids if you give me my wall. We shouldn't be doing that. That's unfair -- that's really dangerous.

HARLOW: Congressman Peter Welch, thank you for joining me this morning.

WELCH: Thank you.


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