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Outrage Grows Over Trump Administration Practice of Separating Immigrant Children from Families. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired June 18, 2018 - 07:00   ET


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: You can call it cages, pens, whatever you want. But this is what we're dealing with this morning.

[07:00:04] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Children separated from their parents.

Now former first lady Laura Bush says it is cruel and immoral. Current first lady Melania Trump says she hates seeing families separated, but she appears to echo President Trump's ruse that politics is to blame here.

The president has lied about this, calling it a Democratic policy. It is not. You can argue the merits of what he has decided to do, which the attorney general, chief of staff, former chief strategist have all done. They own it. What you cannot argue is what caused it to happen. The White House chose this. That is beyond debate.

Coming up in moments on NEW DAY, we're going to speak to two lawmakers who toured a detention facility in Texas. We're going to ask them what they will do to try to fix this situation.

Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Abby Phillip, live this morning at the White House. Abby, give us the latest.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, John. In just six weeks, about 2,000 undocumented children have been separated from their families at the border. And the controversy over this zero-tolerance Trump administration policy for people who cross over the border is growing by the day and by the minute.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: They're using the grief, the tears, the pain of these kids as mortar to build their wall.

PHILLIP (voice-over): Growing bipartisan outrage over the Trump administration's practice of separating children from their families at the border.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: What the administration has decided to do is to separate children from their parents to try to send a message that, if you cross the border with children, your children are going to be ripped away from you. That's traumatizing to the children, who are innocent victims. PHILLIP: Former first lady Laura Bush condemning the practice in a

scathing op-ed, comparing the detention centers housing children to Japanese internment camps, writing, "I appreciate the need to need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero- tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart."

First lady Melania Trump also entering the political fray with a rare, carefully worded statement partially echoing her husband's position, before stating, "We need to be a country that follows all laws but also a country that governs with heart."

This as a number of Democrats spent Father's Day visiting detention centers across the country in protest.

REP. MARK POCAN (D), WISCONSIN: It's a 6 x 10 area, and you get out two hours a day. That to, I think, a child 10 years old is a prison.

PHILLIP: Republican Senators Susan Collins and Jeff Flake sending a letter to the White House, demanding clarification about whether the practice is being applied to asylum seekers. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen insisting the children are only taken from asylum seekers in certain circumstances and that the White House has no policy of separating families.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I hate the children being taken away. The Democrats have to change their law. That's their law.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, that's not.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, that's your own policy. That's your own policy.

TRUMP: Quiet. Quiet. That's the Democrats' law. We can change it tonight. We can change it right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're the president. You can change it.

TRUMP: I will leave here -- no, no. You need their votes.

PHILLIP: President Trump trying to use the issue to pressure Democrats to support GOP border legislation, while continuing to blame Democrats for illegal immigration.

But the Trump administration's increased enforcement began in April. Attorney General Jeff Sessions later announced the new zero-tolerance policy.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: President Trump could stop this policy with a phone call.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: He doesn't seem to acknowledge that.

GRAHAM: Well, he can. I'll go tell him. If you don't like families being separated you can tell DHS, "Stop doing it."

PHILLIP: The White House denies the children are being used as negotiating tool.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO DONALD TRUMP: Nobody likes this policy. You saw the president on camera, that he wants this to end. But everybody has -- Congress has to act.

PHILLIP: Despite the fact that senior policy adviser Stephen Miller told the "New York Times" last week that "It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry, period."


PHILLIP: Well, tomorrow, President Trump is going to be meeting with House Republicans over this issue of immigration. Republicans are trying to push through one of two immigration bills, a conservative one and a compromise moderate one.

But the president is doing this, in part, because he threw a wrench in Republican leaders' plans to push these bills by announcing on Friday that he opposed them. Now, he's -- the White House had to walk that all back. And of course, with this issue of undocumented children at the border, it's very likely that that will also be a part of those discussions tomorrow, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK. Abby, please keep us posted on any developments from the White House this morning.

Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen taking to Twitter to defend the Trump administration saying, quote, "We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period."

But the truth debunks that, as we see in video and photos and with our own eyes.

[07:05:00] CNN's Dianne Gallagher is live in McAllen, Texas, where she was granted access inside a detention facility, or a processing facility, I guess I should say. Dianne, so tell us what you've seen there.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. In that processing center, the busiest on the southern border, Alisyn, right here behind me, the Rio Grande Valley. They have eventually separated more children from their families than any other facility in the entire country.

Now, it's important to note that this right here is a temporary facility. They're only supposed to be here about 72 hours at most before they go on to the next step. And that's where the separation tends to occur.

We went inside. It was a heavily controlled, guided tour with the Border Patrol agents. And I can tell you that when we walked inside, the first room housed these pens with about these 12-foot-high chain- link fences of single adult males and single adult females on opposite sides of the room.

In the middle, it looked just kind of like a regular, everyday office in the center of that room, with desks and computers. There was a video bank where they were doing virtual processing. Because with this zero-tolerance policy, they have more paperwork, because it's essentially 100 percent prosecution rate right now. So there's more for Border Patrol agents to do there.

We went into a separate room, a very large 55,000-square-foot warehouse where there were much larger pens. Inside there are the families and the children. Unaccompanied minors are in one holding area. Teenage boys, young boys being held together.

I spoke to one boy. He said that he had come from Guatemala. He had a big smile on his face when we showed up, and he said, you know, he was happy to be there, because it wasn't outside. That he was doing very well.

The one next to them, it was fathers with their children. In the same pen. I saw toddlers in there. Mothers, as well. They had food. They had water. They had clothing. But again, they don't know what happens next, Alisyn. That's the key.

CAMEROTA: Understood, Dianne. Thank you very much for giving us your own eyewitness account.

OK. Joining us now to discuss, we have CNN political commentator Michael Smerconish and CNN political analyst Margaret Talev.

So Margaret, listen, this is a Trump administration policy. I mean, they've -- you know, Jeff Sessions, Stephen Miller, they've talked about how they are purposely doing this as deterrence.

BERMAN: John Kelly.

CAMEROTA: John Kelly. They could interpret zero-tolerance however they want. George W. Bush interpreted it his way. They started the zero-tolerance policy, referring all of the illegal entrants for criminal prosecution, but they didn't separate the children from the adults, because they felt that was in humane.

The Obama administration interpreted it their way. And now the Trump administration is interpreting it in this way in order to be a deterrent. Is there any sense, Margaret, that other than sort of the media outcry about this, that public sentiment is catching onto this and turning on and demanding a change to this policy?

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think this weekend and the last few days have been pivotal in painting a different sort of narrative than the one the administration initially talked about as they tried to explain this policy. I was going to say justify this policy. But sort of the second wave narrative of this has been that it's the Democrats' policy, which you know, we know that it's not. This is the administration's policy.

But there is a tremendous amount of internal division inside both the administration and the Republican Party about whether this is appropriate. And I think, as some of that very important reporting happens on site, where there are actual accounts of how these children are responding, the practical implications of the separation, that it is changing the discussion inside the administration.

Now, ultimately, what's going to happen, I think we don't know. But it's -- it's crucial how Republican lawmakers and the president interact. And there will be several chances this week for that to happen.

BERMAN: Look, the White House chose this. They chose this. The administration chose this. And now people are weighing in.

And your question was, is it having an impact beyond just the media? Laura Bush, I covered the Bush campaign. I covered the Bush family for years and years. I don't ever remember her jumping in with both feet as she has here. Not only does she call it immoral: "I live in a border state. I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our boundaries. But this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. It breaks my heart."

She compares it to the Japanese internment camps in World War II. This is Laura Bush. Laura Bush, Michael, has chosen to weigh in here. It seems to me as if the discussion has moved way beyond what the White House hoped to control here.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'm not sure. I don't know that Laura Bush speaks for that Trump constituency. I think that you and Alisyn are asking the exact correct question, which is to say how is this going to play politically?

And I would just caution you, John, that there have been other instances both during the campaign and during the presidency where the initial reaction has been one of appall or aghast at what has transpired: the "grab them by the 'p'" tape; the Muslim ban incident or series of legislative initiatives. And yet, those things have not impacted the base.

I'm more taken with Franklin Graham. I'm more taken with Cardinal Dolan --

BERMAN: But that is the base.

SMERCONISH: -- than I am with Laura Bush.


BERMAN: But Franklin Graham -- I agree. I agree with what you're saying. This has gone beyond Laura Bush to that wing of the party with Franklin Graham. But that was happening last week. I mean, Franklin Graham was out there talking. You see religious leaders weighing in. It is having this impact.

SMERCONISH: The policy is being defended -- but the policy is being defended in those media outlets that his base pays the closest attention to. And there the answer is to say that the parents who are bringing these kids here in this scenario are using them as chips or as pawns, and the fault lies with them and not with the administration. I'm simply saying it's not the no-brainer in terms of how it's perceived politically that we might think at first blush. CAMEROTA: I appreciate that reality check. I mean, I think that

that's really helpful. And you bring us that from Pennsylvania, which is so helpful. So Margaret, what were you going to say?

TALEV: I was going to say that we're -- to some extent we're talking about the same thing. If there is tremendous pushback from both the evangelical community, that part of the religious base, and from the Republican lawmakers in Congress, it may begin to have an impact on how the president perceives kind of the risk/reward of the message that this policy sends.

I think we have typically seen Republican lawmakers support the president even when they're uncomfortable with something that he's doing. And that gives him kind of the grounding to continue the policy. So that interaction, both with congressional lawmakers and with the evangelical community, is going to be crucial in the next few days.

CAMEROTA: But Michael, I want to get back to what you're saying about the Trump base. And you're so right that so often we hear something that is interpreted as outrageous, but they don't see it as a deal breaker. In fact, they embrace it.

And so with this one, I think, in particular, we need to have our eyes open, because this has been an intractable problem, OK, for decades. Trump ran on this. And what his -- his voters say is you cannot have a country if you have open borders. If every single day hundreds of people are coming in for whatever their motivations are, are coming in and crossing the border, and then there is this process, which they call catch and release, of somebody being arrested, but because the courts are glutted -- I mean, clogged, I should say, with all of this, then they're released and asked to come back at some future date for a court hearing. And sometimes they show up, and sometimes they don't.


CAMEROTA: And so this is -- they -- the Trump administration thinks that, if you do something really punitive, like separate kids from parents, maybe it will send a message as a deterrent. That has yet to be proven. People are still showing up with their kids.

Well, I think the nature of the immigration we're talking about has shifted. Where it had been singles. It had been individual males coming from Mexico. Now it's many families who are coming from Central America.

And to your point, Alisyn, they're probably playing us a bit, playing us, at least heretofore, on our sympathy, because they've known we were going to keep those families intact.

And so, you know, the hard decision for us has been one of do we keep the family intact and release them, knowing that we may not find them again? Or do we pursue this policy, this so-called "zero-tolerance policy" and run the risk now of separating parents from kids?

Look, I feel the need to say this, as a father of four who celebrated Father's Day yesterday, I'm horrified by the images, as well. I just think it's more complicated in terms of practice and the political dynamic than at first blush you think when you look at that video. That's all.

BERMAN: I'm going to try one more. I'm going to weigh in one more time, despite Smerconish and Camerota here. I think one way you know that the president thinks there's a political issue here is the fact that he's lying about it.

CAMEROTA: I agree.

BERMAN: Is the fact that he will not own this.

CAMEROTA: He's not taking credit for it.

BERMAN: He won't own it. You have Sessions owning it. You have John Kelly owning it. You have Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, not with the administration anymore. They all say, "We're doing this, and this is why we're doing this." The president lies about it, Margaret, and calls it a Democratic policy. This was awe White House choice. The White House chose to go down this road which has led to this. And now the president won't own it.

To me that indicates he's having a hard time, maybe, on the phone. He's having a hard time, maybe, with the pictures. You're saying there's a split within the administration here.

Do you have any sense on how much more they're willing to take here? Is this just to get through Tuesday when the president meets with the Republican Congress people?

TALEV: I think part of what the president has been doing up until now has also been a strategic policy effort to pressure Democrats to sign onto funding for a wall. It seems obvious that that's not going to work at this point.

And so you do see -- he has two sort of things he's pursuing, right? One is to try to pressure Democrats to vote a certain way, and the other is to try to detract the public outcry to say, "This isn't my fault." But as the reporting continues, we see this is an administration policy and it is his choice.

[07:15:19] Margaret Talev, Michael Smerconish, great to talk to both of you with your perspectives. We shall see what happens.

BERMAN: You just like it because Smerconish agrees with you.

CAMEROTA: I'm not -- there's nothing to agree with. I like when he reminds us that nothing is as simple as it appears.

BERMAN: When he tells you how right you are? I'd like that also if people tell me how right I am.

CAMEROTA: Maybe we'll have Michael back again.

BERMAN: That's awesome. All right. Some Democratic senators getting a firsthand look at some

of the immigrant processing at detention centers on the border with Mexico. What they saw, what they think of the Trump administration position on this. But what are they going to do about this? That's next.


BERMAN: A group of Democratic lawmakers traveled to Texas for what they call a Father's Day of action. They went to the border in Texas, visiting a processing and detention center to see the facilities where children are separated from their parents.

Joining me now, Democratic Senators Jeff Merkley and Chris Van Hollen. Senators, thank you so much for being with us.

[07:20:06] Senator Merkley, we know you had made a trip previously there. Just tell me what you saw over the weekend.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), OREGON: Well, we went to five different centers, including the port of entry and then different stages of processing. And then the facility where children are being kept, almost 1,500 children. And then finally, we went to a facility where the adults are being held.

BERMAN: And what did you see there, Senator Van Hollen? When you saw these facilities, what conditions were they? How did the children look?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: Well, the first place, which is a processing center here in McAllen, Texas, is where you've got kids separated from their parents. You may have already seen the pictures. You sort of have large pens of chain-link fences.

And there, we had an opportunity to talk to one of the moms. In this case, a mom who'd fled violence in Guatemala who told us that her daughter had been separated from her in that facility. She didn't know where her daughter was at the moment.

And this is the direct result of a deliberate policy that the Trump administration has put in place over the last six weeks. We later talked to moms at the detention center, the same -- detention center St. Isabel, who told us they had also been separated from their children.

So we should end this inhumane, cruel policy.

BERMAN: The president, there's no question the president could end this with a phone call. The White House chose this. I don't believe there is any debate on that.

Be that as it may, until he does that, Senator Merkley, what are you going to do about this? How will you help fix this problem?

MERKLEY: Well, the biggest thing right now is to shine a spotlight on it. In the two weeks since I came down here, we have now seen the evangelical community starting to weigh in. We've seen the Southern Baptist community starting to weigh in. And we're starting to tear away some of the fallacies that the administration is conveying to the American people.

For example, they have said, "We're just trying to get people to enter at the port of entry." Well, what we see at this port of entry, and as reported on other ports of entry, is it's essentially shut down for people seeking asylum. There were a group of four American border guards out in the middle of the bridge at the port of entry, stopping people who did not have papers. That is, those who are seeking asylum.

We heard that the -- there have been requests from the U.S. to the Mexican side to not even let them onto the bridge to begin with. That part we weren't able to check -- check out.

But it just slowed to a trickle, just a trickle of folks at the port of entries who can seek asylum. So therefore, these families are arriving. And they're in an impossible situation. Because to remain on the Mexican side is to be subject to gang attacks, because they're so vulnerable. So then they decided to cross between the ports of entry. And the administration says, "See, they're breaking the law. We're criminalizing this. We're arresting them. We're putting them in handcuffs. We're throwing them in prison, and we're taking away their children."

So this is an all-out assault on the concept of those fleeing persecution getting a fair chance to present their case for asylum here in the United States.

BERMAN: The question, Senator Van Hollen, then is what has been done in the past to keep this from happening? Those things that have been tried haven't worked. Correct?

And President Trump is saying, Senator Van Hollen, "Give me a wall. This will help stop it. Give me more border protection. This will help stop it."

And people in his administration -- though not him, because he won't admit it -- are saying, "If we separate kids from their parents, this will act as a deterrent."

Nothing has worked to this point. Doesn't something new have to be tried, senator Van Hollen?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, first of all, it's pretty clear that this is not working in terms of stemming the folks who are fleeing for their lives from violence. I mean, that is a big motivator, and we talked to many moms who fled with their -- their kids. So it's not having that effect.

What we've done in the past is keep these families together through the asylum process. So one of the things we should do is increase the number of asylum judges so that people can get their hearings. But at least the families would then be kept together. The moms and the daughters, the moms and the sons, at least they'd be kept together during that process.

What President Trump is doing is putting in place this deliberate family separation policy to try to get leverage on other parts of his immigration legislative proposals. So in fact, what he's doing is holding these kids and their parents hostage to a whole set of other immigration issues when he could end this today.

BERMAN: So let's see if we can hammer out --

MERKLEY: John, it's --

BERMAN: Hang on one second, Senator Merkley. Let's see if we can figure out what some kind of legislative plan -- and there are two Republican plans that we voted on this week. Let's see what you could support.

[07:25:03] Would you support any border wall funding as part of a deal if it would protect these children who are being separated from their families, keep them together?

MERKLEY: So, John, just one thing I want to clear up. Because there are things that have worked in the past. There was a case management program where case managers were assigned. Reportedly had a 99 percent success rates in people turning out for their -- their hearings. So there is basically -- and that was a program terminated by this administration, by Trump administration. So families have been kept together. They have shown up for hearings; they have been treated respectfully.

And understand that the core of what Chris was describing is deliberate infliction of trauma on children and stress on adults to send a political message. That is unacceptable under any moral code, under any religious tradition.

BERMAN: There is a bill -- one of these bills, one of these bills, the so-called moderate version of the Republican plan --

VAN HOLLEN: But John --

BERMAN: Go ahead. Go ahead, Senator. But it would allow for safe keeping some of these families staying together.

VAN HOLLEN: Right. So those are both House Republican bills.

In the Senate, as you know, there was a bipartisan bill. Susan Collins, a number of Republicans, Lindsey Graham, responded to the president's request months ago to come up with, quote, "q bill of love." That's what the president said he wanted. And we had a bipartisan bill that would have included some additional funds for border wall -- border security generally.

And what happened? The president, after urging people to come up with a bipartisan plan, pulled the rug out from under that effort entirely. I mean, Republican senators were furious about what he did.

So he's playing a game. As you were saying earlier, he knows. He knows this family separation policy is very unpopular. And what he's doing is trying to point fingers at others and use it for leverage for a whole set of other immigration issues.

But this one -- this one, family separation -- is his doing, and he could end it today

BERMAN: Senator Van Hollen, Senator Merkley, thank so much for being with us this morning. Appreciate it.

MERKLEY: Thank you, John.

VAN HOLLEN: Thank you.

BERMAN: Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK, John, now to this story we've been covering for months. The mega merger between AT&T and Time Warner is now complete. What does it mean for you, the consumer? We will speak to WarnerMedia's new CEO, our boss, next.