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Former ICE Director Sarah Saldaña Calls On Congress To Pass Immigration Reform

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Former ICE Director Sarah Saldaña of Dallas Calls On Congress To Pass Immigration Reform. CBS 11 Political Reporter Jack Fink.

Video Transcript

JACK FINK: Sarah Saldaña, the former Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement during President Obama's second term and a former United States Attorney here in the Northern District of Texas covering Dallas and Tarrant counties and multiple other counties, thank you so much for joining us today.

First, let me ask you, what do you make of the current situation at the southern border? Because we do know that we've seen the highest level number of border crossings in 15 years in addition to the record number of unaccompanied children who have crossed the border.

SARAH SALDAÑA: That's true. It is a-- it's a tragic and difficult situation. I can see how the system is overwhelmed. We've talked about that for years, actually. But, of course, when you double the number of particularly unaccompanied minors coming into the country, that's just overwhelming.

Obviously-- and I think anybody with any kind of sense knows children cannot be treated the way adults are who are coming into the country or asking to come into the country or have done it illegally. There is a particular agreement, the Flores Agreement, that covers how we treat children, and there are special standards. Children are just not-- can't be dealt with the same way.

CBP and ICE, the agency that I directed, are both in the business of enforcement, not taking care of children. So the decision's been made that Health and Human Services-- makes a lot of sense-- will take over the dealings with the children, house them temporarily. That is the whole idea is no more than 72 hours under that agreement. And then find family members, verify their relationship, and release them there until they can have a hearing.

When you have the numbers doubled-- it is on a system that was already backed up. It is a very difficult crisis, in my view.

JACK FINK: And, you know, as far as even during your time as director of ICE, it was still a challenging situation.

SARAH SALDAÑA: Of course. And, you know, these numbers seem a little low now, but we were overwhelmed by 14,000 the year that I came in as director-- 14,000 unaccompanied children coming into in 2014 and then continuing into 2015. That was already difficult. We talked about increasing the number of judges in immigration court so the cases wouldn't get stacked up. The Flores Agreement continued to be modified with these restrictions that ended up being even tighter than before.

Now we're talking about 72,000 unaccompanied children. That is a very catastrophic situation, so obviously that's something that needs to be dealt with. And I think the administration is doing its best, although this is a hard task for anybody, I think.

JACK FINK: Should there-- if the administration was going to change policies, should there have been more lead-up time to plan for the sheer numbers that we're seeing?

SARAH SALDAÑA: Well, yes. I mean, looking back, it's always pretty easy to see where the failings are, and I think that might have been the case. I don't think anybody could have predicted-- I wouldn't have, and I have some experience in this area-- 72,000 unaccompanied minors. And mind you, that number was already pretty high even before Biden, the president-- President Biden took office in January of this year. I mean, the numbers were climbing-- 40,000, 45,000, 48,000. And then, of course, in 2020, in the COVID year, it went down a little bit.

But these numbers had been climbing since forever. When I tell you it was 14,000 in 2014 when I came in compared to Trump's first year, which was 40,000, that number has been going up steadily. So perhaps we should not have-- this should have been anticipated more than it was. But these numbers, I don't know how we can say that.

JACK FINK: When you hear critics, they say they blame the messaging by the administration. Is that fair?

SARAH SALDAÑA: I think it's part of the issue. I can't put a number as to how much of this is affecting the number of people. But again, if we had policies-- under President Trump's policy of MPP, Migration Protocol-- Protection Protocol, keeping people on the southern border on the Mexican side as opposed to allowing them in while their asylum hearings were being determined, that was-- the numbers were increasing, like I said earlier, all during the Trump administration-- except for the COVID year, 2020.

So who's to say that it is largely responsible for these numbers? These are desperate people, and I have no doubt about that. But I think the messaging is partly responsible for some of this, yes.

JACK FINK: This obviously has become-- I mean, it always has been a very political issue. You know, Republicans have their points. Democrats have their points. So let's get the politics out of the way, so to speak. You think-- you know, where do you see all of this as far as what Republicans are saying and what Democrats are saying?

SARAH SALDAÑA: OK, Jack, you live in another world, getting the politics out of the immigration discussion. That is-- that's a difficult thing to do, but let's try for the moment. There is-- there has got to be a will to get immigration reform done.

I think there are a lot of people who say we should be an insular country, deal with our own problems. Don't worry about what's going on in the rest of the world. That is way out of possibilities now. This is a global arena we live in. What happens in Central America or South America or across the pond affects our country.

So to me, I don't see how anyone can argue with continuing discussions with the countries that are contributing the most to this crisis right now, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. And we were doing that under the Obama administration when I was there. I visited all three countries. I met with the head of immigration. I met with the president of two of those countries.

And it is important to reach out and try to come up with solutions together, not to just impose those solutions. But we've been very short on foreign relations under the prior administration. That's just a fact. I think the wish was to keep us a nation unto our own, an island unto our own. And as I say, that is just not realistic.

On the other side, we have individuals, advocates for the immigrant population who say just let everybody in. That is not going to happen, and it would be illegal to allow that to happen under our former legal structure-- our current legal structure. So we have got to find a place in between. I have some thoughts about that. One is continue that relationship with those countries. There are problems and pitfalls here. We know there's graft and corruption in these very countries, along with many of the Southern and Central American countries.

So we've got to be careful in how we do that. Continue our work with local law enforcement. ICE had a tremendous relationship with the police officers and the federal officers in those countries, working together-- the United States providing training to those officers with respect to particularly human traffickers, drug trafficking, and those kinds of issues, the issues that bring us concerns when it comes to opening up the border a little bit.

And then we really need to get realistic. We really need to get realistic about what our expectations are. And we kind of need to either affirm or deny our values, and that is if there is a child who has been left at our border without family or parents, is it the United States' way of life to say we will protect you because you're here now? We didn't ask you to come, but you're here now, and we need to deal with it.

So these are matters that we, apparently up to now-- we've talked so much about immigration reform and the system, everybody acknowledging that the system is broken. But there has been so little progress, if any.

There's a bill currently in the Congress that the House passed, the United States Citizenship Act. That's a starting point. I hope we can move that along to some extent.

But it's going to take public outcry. I don't know if you saw or your audience saw the images of some-- what are purported to be smugglers dropping two little girls over a very high fence down to the United States side and then running away and leaving the girls there. I mean, I just-- I don't know how we turn our back to that.

JACK FINK: And you were-- when we were discussing this before our interview, you said to me that asylum is the law and allowing for people to claim asylum is the law of the land in the United States.

SARAH SALDAÑA: Yes. We need to keep that in mind, and we need to keep in mind just a little background. There are three areas of immigration and our policies with respect to them. One is employer based, highly skilled workers or specially skilled workers, employment based. That has its own protocol and rules.

Family reunification is another one. There's a cap of a half a million people, I believe. I don't know how that's going along, but if it's like everything else, it is highly backed up.

And then, of course, there is the issue of humanitarian concerns, both refugees and asylum seekers. Refugees are people who are in another country seeking to enter the country. Asylums are folks who have presented themselves to Customs and Border Protection at a port of entry or border and who seek to come into the United States. There's no cap there.

So if we want to change that, if we want to limit the numbers, if we want to shut that down completely, turn our back to these people, we have to change the law.

JACK FINK: And, you know, the other point that is often made is that once people are allowed in and they are waiting for their court date and the administration courts to have their asylum cases heard, a lot of them don't show up. So they're in the country, and there's no record of where they are. Is that a fair criticism?

SARAH SALDAÑA: It is. I mean, I was the director of ICE. I had looked at these numbers all the time. The problem isn't-- mind you, it takes about-- I think the latest numbers are 2 and 1/2 years for an asylum application to run its course. And ICE-- neither ICE nor CBP, Customs and Border Protection, which is at the border, have anything to say about whether you're returned during the course of a hearing. It is an immigration judge who decides that, and then ICE carries out the directive of the court.

So when you have a situation where you just-- you know, you've got to wait 2 and 1/2 years. People have a tendency to show up in the early hearings because they'll be hearings where you touch base certainly with ICE. That's not a hearing. That's just touching base. But then also the court might call you in and see how things are going. They don't seem to have trouble showing up for that, but there are a significant number of people who fail to show up when the final determination is made.

So is there a way to address that? We were trying something at ICE before I left, and that was an alternative to detention, and that was shoring up the local community resources. It's amazing how a church-- Catholic Charities is one that I have to mention because they're extraordinary in this area-- or community-based organizations can get a connection to an immigrant that others can't, certainly not those of us in law enforcement.

And to have them develop a relationship and ensure that they do what they're supposed to be doing, what they committed to do, and to come to their hearing-- we spent a very small amount of money that we were given to test this and see if people would come in more. I have not followed, because we were still in the middle of implementing that program, what the results were, but I got to believe-- and, of course, this is anecdotal. There were many cases where, yes, we had people showing up because they had a person they trusted who was covering and worrying about that issue.

JACK FINK: And so do you think this is something that the current administration should get back to doing and possibly expanding? So in other words-- and how did it work? How did your plan evolve?

SARAH SALDAÑA: What we did was you had an immigrant with a notice to appear. You know, they've made an application for asylum. They have been-- they've been released to family or others, and they have a notice to appear on a date certain.

And what we would do is with these small funds-- I can't remember how much it was, exactly, but it was several hundred thousand dollars. That doesn't go very far. But we would pass on to the church or the community-based organization a certain amount of money to assist them in making that connection, staying in touch with them, bringing them into their facility, and encouraging them to do the right thing and to stay employed or whatever it is that they needed to be doing, and then to ensure by even accompanying them to come to their hearings.

It's the local connection that seems to have a good effect on the immigrant as opposed to their being out there with no connection to anyone other than law enforcement. That doesn't always turn out so well.

JACK FINK: And so you're saying that these community organizations can build a trust with these folks, and so these people believe that their best interest is being served.

SARAH SALDAÑA: Exactly. Exactly. And anecdotally, it worked pretty well. I didn't see the final numbers, but it makes sense.

JACK FINK: And you talked a little bit before about the Flores, which is the court hearing about the children where they've got to be in there temporarily. I think it was 72 hours you said. And then we talked about-- we've been talking about how this administration but the Trump administration, your administration under President Obama, President Bush before that, President Clinton before him-- and so this has been going on for, you know, a long time already. How many different presidential administrations? And the problem is still there.

And so at some point doesn't Congress need to, you know, step up and, you know-- I don't know, lock-- I mean, it's 50-50 in the Senate, and it's very close in the House. Doesn't there need to be, you know, all these members getting into a room, lock themselves in, and don't come out until they come up with a fix?

SARAH SALDAÑA: Of course. Of course. I do-- I do-- if we're going to put some responsibility on someone, it is legislation. That's been the Republicans' concern is this can't be dealt with by executive order. It's got to be legislation. The Democrats have already introduced this bill in February. That's what has to happen. It is apparently a mammoth task.

I don't know of too many issues where there is a crisis in the case of these children or just a very large challenge that threatens our country that has been ignored for so long and been allowed to be ignored by legislators. We should be demanding attention to this issue. And to me, legislation is the best fix, not a temporary Band-Aid here and there.

JACK FINK: Do you see any signs of progress on that part? You mentioned the United States Citizenship Act, but there seems to me, when I've talked to people on both sides, that there's room-- there's a lot of agreement on a lot of different things and several issues that there is strong disagreement. But do you think that, you know, this will-- you know, this situation that the US is facing right now will be impetus enough, you know, to get the legislative body, Congress, to do something?

SARAH SALDAÑA: I'm concerned based on what I've seen as a response from both sides up to now-- the Biden administration refusing to call this a crisis, that doesn't help anything; the Republican legislators who say, well, we need a statutory fix but who aren't working towards that end; and our own governor coming forward and saying all of a sudden this is a terrible problem. It's been a terrible problem for some time.

So I just-- everywhere I go, everywhere I speak, I offer my services free of charge to be anywhere in the country to assist in this effort. I've done that. I've offered that to both Republicans and to Democrats. My phone isn't ringing off the wall. And I'm just concerned that we will continue to be entrenched if there isn't a public demand for legislators to do what they've been voted in to do.

JACK FINK: And my last question to you-- and again, I really appreciate your insight in all this-- is what would your message be to members of Congress should you have the opportunity to speak with them, either on a Zoom, on the phone, or in person?

SARAH SALDAÑA: That is please help us on this issue that is of utmost import. This doesn't affect just the-- for example, we haven't even talked about the 11 million people who are already in the country without documentation. We're just talking about people entering the country, and children mostly is our focus right now. Everyone has agreed, legislator-wise-- every legislator seems to agree that there is something that needs to be done, but we really do need to say let us take the help from wherever we can and work on this.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to have another gang of eight, committed legislators who get into a room and do come up with some kind of compromise package? Of course it's going to be a compromise. That is something that I ask not only the public to reach out to their legislators, congressional and Senate, but also to them directly. Please help us to address these issues so that we can move forward because it affects not only the immigrant but the immigrant's employer, the immigrant's neighbors, the immigrant's family, many of whom are United States citizens. We can't ignore this problem and expect it just to go away on its own.

JACK FINK: Sarah Saldaña, the former director for ICE during President Obama's second term and former United States attorney here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it.