FOREIGN PRESS CENTER BRIEFING WITH KEN CUCCINELLI, SENIOR OFFICIAL PERFORMING THE DUTIES OF DEPUTY SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY; CAROL THOMPSON O’CONNELL, ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE BUREAU OF POPULATION, REFUGEES, AND MIGRATION; AND HUGO RODRIGUEZ, DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WESTERN HEMISPHERE AFFAIRS
TOPIC: JOINT EFFORTS ON BORDER SECURITY AND REGIONAL PARTNERSHIPS ACROSS CENTRAL AMERICA
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 10, 2019, 1:00 P.M. EST
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Welcome, everybody, to the Washington Foreign Press Center. We’re pleased to have you all here today. And we’re pleased to welcome our three briefers who will be speaking on joint efforts on border security and regional partnerships across Central America.
We have with us today Ken Cuccinelli, Senior Official Performing the Duties of Acting Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security; Carol Thompson O’Connell, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration; and Hugo Rodriguez, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Each of our briefers will make opening remarks, and then we’ll open it up to question and answer. At that time, when called upon, please state your name and media outlet and to whom you’re addressing your question. And with that, I will turn it over to our first speaker. Thank you.
MR CUCCINELLI: Thank you. I appreciate it. And good afternoon to all of you. I am Ken Cuccinelli. As you heard, that short little title is senior official performing the duties of the deputy secretary. Of course, that acronym is SOPTDOTDS, so more commonly acting deputy secretary is a little easier, and I am glad to be here with you all.
Very glad to be representing the Department of Homeland Security and talk about what’s going on at our border and our international relationships that relate to the southwest border and what we view as improving relationships around the world, in this part – at least in our part of the world.
It’s no secret that the United States has a humanitarian and security crisis on our southern border. The Trump administration has been very energetic, been tireless in its efforts to achieve significant successes along the border, and we’ve done that. As Acting Chairman of Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan said yesterday, November marked the sixth straight month of declines from the May peak in illegal immigration at our southwest border.
We can talk about three different reasons for this success. The first is the great work the administration has done and accomplished with our international partners – with Mexico, with Guatemala, with Honduras, with El Salvador. We’ve signed historic agreements with our neighbors to the south, the Central American countries in particular. And that has born great fruit in all of those nations, including our own.
The second is the important work the administration has done here domestically within the United States to strengthen our immigration processes and tighten the regulations that have been authorized by Congress. All of this, from our perspective, has been with very little action on the part of Congress. But laws on the books allow the President and his administration to take a variety of actions, and we are aggressively moving forward to undertake those sorts of actions. And that’s why you see more regulations come out; you see more rules. Those are all based on laws Congress has previously passed.
And the third is the border wall construction. So far, 88 miles have been built with hundreds more planned to be completed by the end of 2020. We hope to have, between building and planning and having the money in hand, over 500 by the end of 2020.
The sum of these efforts really means that the dangerous journey for Central Americans to illegally cross the U.S. southwest border has never been less likely to succeed – never been less likely.
And first of all, the journey is dangerous. That is something that we worry about every day. Customs and Border Protection, in the last fiscal year that ended on September 30th, had over 4,900 rescues – just rescues. Forget everything else they do. But this is – whether it be in the middle of the desert, whether it be rivers, they have had an extraordinary year on that front. That speaks to the danger – and that’s just here at the United States.
Along the way, the transnational criminal organizations, or TCOs – they prey on migrant populations. They put them at risk; they have no concern about their wellbeing, obviously want to make money off them. And the smuggling routes that force migrants to cross deserts, rivers – and these flows are moved by the TCOs. They’re shifted for their own reasons as they take a cut from the human traffickers to make money. This is an evil tollbooth from the TCO’s perspective. And that makes it even more dangerous on a human level, not just what’s going on on the long journey.
Simply put, the conditions that smugglers and traffickers subject migrants to are inhumane, and these, again, are people who have no real human concern for the wellbeing of the people who put themselves in their care. The so-called services that these TCOs offer demand extraordinary sums of money relative to what the people turning that money over have. It can be life savings frequently. You all have heard dollar figures in the $40,000 range and the different estimates depending on time and a variety of factors. But that is an enormous sum of money, especially for the people they’re preying on.
The Trump administration is committed to putting a stop to these brutal organizations who victimize migrants, terrorizing their own communities as well. We’re fortunate to have many of our valued regional partners with us in this effort, and those partnerships have been growing throughout 2019. As our current acting Secretary Chad Wolf puts it, our message to TCOs is simple: You can’t outrun our agents; you can’t outsmart our analysts; and you can’t hide from our reach. We know we’re facing off with these TCOs, even while we contend with what arrives at our border in the form of migration.
Second of all, the journey itself is futile. As the State Department says in various places, no mas. It really has been a shutoff spigot. Construction of the new border wall along the border is a major impediment to illegal crossings in those areas; it’s a major aid to our Border Patrol agents. It’s more than just a physical barrier; it’s got a lot of technology integrated, like cameras, sensors, fiber optic technology, and real time surveillance that give our agents the ability to force multiply, so less agents can cover more ground more effectively now. And as I noted, we’ve constructed more than 88 miles and we expect hundreds more by the end of next year of 2020.
So not only is our border security stronger, but we’re also using all the legal tools at our disposal to address the unprecedented volume of migrants and the mix, particularly with families. When I talk about a mix, I talk about not just single adults. Requesting asylum at the southwest border no longer allows migrants to just automatically be released into the United States. That is over. That is over. Requesting asylum without a legitimate basis for the claim will result in the claimants being denied entry to the United States entirely.
And one of the, frankly, infuriating things about so many of the false claims of asylum is the process they clog up gets in the way of real asylum claims, people who have genuine oppression that they’re running from, who have actual claims, and they’re all in the same pipeline. There’s no way, from looking at one case versus another, to know which of these is the less than one-sixth of claims coming out of Central America that is legit, that is going to be granted. And we have to process all of them, and we’re doing that as best we can.
We have adopted a process they used in the Clinton administration called last in, first out, for the accountants among you, LIFO. And that means people who come to the border today are literally at the front of the line for asylum hearings, and that means they get adjudicated while detained or while remaining in Mexico or elsewhere using the other programs we have. And given the small percentage of those that are granted, that is why they won’t be granted entry into the United States. That’s the path.
Asylum claimants can expect to be sent home, to be transferred to another country. We have agreements in place with Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. The Guatemala agreement is functioning; Honduras is close to being implemented, and El Salvador is well on its way as well. And of course, more commonly known as the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico” program, which has served us so well and has relied on our partnership with our neighbor to the south, Mexico.
In the case of migrants who were successful in evading our agents at the border, in the interior, U.S. Immigrations and Custom Enforcement, ICE, is conducting ongoing interior enforcement operations to send those living here home, those who are here illegally, especially those with separate criminal records as well. Those are and have been, across administrations, a priority for deportation in the United States, and that continues.
To sum it up, President Trump is using every lawful tool available to address both the humanitarian and security crisis at our southwest border. Each of these efforts have contributed to the declines we’ve seen in the border apprehensions over the course of the last six months, and as is the responsibility of every sovereign nation, the U.S. has a duty to protect its borders, and we are doing that more effectively than ever. We’ll continue to use all our resources to do just that.
Our message to families who may be considering illegally coming to our border, to try and cross it, is to decide against it. It’s simply not worth it, and if you’d like to make the United States your home, we’re proud to offer legal immigration to hundreds of thousands – now I’m talking about citizenship – hundreds of thousands of new Americans every year.
In my position previously as the head of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, we handle legal immigration, and we swore in over 800,000 new citizens in the last fiscal year. There were about 760,000 the year before that. And that’s the first two full fiscal years of President Trump’s administration. That is the highest number for the first two full fiscal years of any president in history.
So when it comes to legal immigration, President Trump’s administration has demonstrated open arms. When it comes to illegal immigration, the Trump administration has and continues to demonstrate vigilance at our border to protect our border and our national security and our sovereignty, and we will continue to do that.
It’s our intent to ensure that the United States remains the most generous legal immigration system in the world and maintains the effectiveness of our asylum system for legitimate asylum seekers. President Trump’s efforts ensure that we will do both of those things.
But also, know that the U.S. is committed to realizing a Central America that’s secure on its own and economically prosperous, one in which families feel safe and confident in building their homes and future, and one that we will continue to look forward to partnering with in the years to come. Our Central American partners are not just our neighbors; they’re our allies, and we want to do all that we can to be the best neighbor and ally in return.
Thank you all very much, and I’ll turn it over to Carol from the State Department.
MS O’CONNELL: Thank you very much. Good afternoon. As Jean mentioned, my name is Carol Thompson O’Connell, and I’m the acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the U.S. Department of State. I lead a dedicated team that runs our humanitarian assistance programs and works to advance America’s global leadership in humanitarian response and diplomacy.
It’s a pleasure to be with you here today to provide an update on the work we’re doing to support regional partnerships, to strengthen asylum systems, and to provide protection from migrants in Central America. I want to share with you today three very important points.
First, one of the basic principles of PRM’s mandate is aligned with the 2017 National Security Strategy objective: to support displaced people close to their homes to help meet their needs until they can safely and voluntarily return home. Second, U.S. engagement with governments and international humanitarian partners puts us solidly at the forefront of international humanitarian response. And third, the humanitarian diplomacy that we conduct supports the implementation of the Asylum Cooperative Agreement, or ACA, with Guatemala. This diplomacy will continue as we support the implementation of ACAs with other governments in the region.
I’d like to begin by outlining how PRM’s mandate fits into our regional response. On behalf of the American people, we promote access to protection for persecuted and forcibly displaced people around the world. We build global partnerships with other governments, international partners, and NGOs. We share the burden of providing assistance and seeking durable solutions for those in need.
We also take into account international norms and standards and facilitate the exchange of best practices. We do this as part of a larger foreign policy objective toward more efficient responses to humanitarian crises. These principles inform our humanitarian response in Guatemala and inform our responses in other countries in the region.
Second, the United States is the standard-bearer on humanitarian issues. While we acknowledge that we never do this work alone, the facts and figures demonstrate our singular leadership to responding to the world’s emergencies. The United States is routinely the largest single donor to humanitarian crisis response globally, having provided nearly $9.3 billion in humanitarian assistance in Fiscal Year 2019 alone. My team is highly engaged in our diplomatic efforts to encourage others, including governments and the private sector, to share responsibility to respond to acute crisis situations.
In the case of the ACAs, our priority is to expand access to protection throughout the region and to work together with governments in the region to stem irregular migration that has contributed to the humanitarian and security crisis at the U.S. southern border.
Third, our broader humanitarian diplomatic engagement in the region guides our support for the implementation of the ACA with Guatemala. As a cooperating country in the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework, or its Spanish-language acronym, MIRPS – M-I-R-P-S – the United States has been providing humanitarian aid in Guatemala and Central America more broadly through our international organization implementing partners in support of the MIRPS national action plans of each member-state, including Guatemala. The MIRPS framework is supported by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, together with the broader UN system.
In Fiscal Year 2019 alone we contributed nearly $125 million to international humanitarian partners to provide assistance and expand access to protection for asylum seekers and forcibly displaced persons in the region. This aid also supports programs that build regional capacity to offer humanitarian protections and to respond to the challenges of forced displacement. In this way, our continued support for implementation of the MIRPS framework aligns with the goals of the ACAs we’ve signed with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. While these ACAs are bilateral agreements between the United States and these countries, humanitarian assistance efforts complement its implementation.
In closing, I’d like to sum up the benefits of our activities. First, that we’re advancing Trump administration priorities through the implementation of the ACA with Guatemala. It helps address irregular migration that contributes to the humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border while simultaneously fulfilling our mandate to support access to protection and ensuring humanitarian needs of vulnerable populations are met.
Second, we’re working diplomatically and collaboratively toward the objectives of broader regional efforts to expand access to humanitarian protections. The United States is at the forefront of efforts to build regional asylum protection capacity. While we lead the way, we encourage other governments to increase their share of the burden to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance.
Finally, we’re coordinating our assistance through international humanitarian partners to meet asylum protection needs throughout the region, including in Guatemala.
Thank you very much, and I look forward to your questions, and happy to introduce Hugo Rodriguez.
MR RODRIGUEZ: Thank you very much, Carol. Good afternoon, thank you for joining us today. As Carol mentioned, my name is Hugo Rodriguez. And as the deputy assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, I lead the teams that work on engagement with Mexico, Central America, and the team that focuses on regional migration issues.
As both Ken and Carol mentioned, the United States cannot address the humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border alone. I’d like to just take a couple of moments to talk about the important cooperation we have had with our Central America and Mexican colleagues, and the role that has played in our efforts to address the crisis on the southern border.
As Ken noted, that while the United States has strengthened our immigration enforcement along the southern border, we’ve also enhanced cooperation with partner governments to increase border security, combat criminal organizations that exploit irregular migrants, expand access to international protection resources, promote access to temporary legal employment in the United States, dissuade individuals from immigrating to the U.S. illegally, and to receive and reintegrate returned nationals in their countries of origin.
We’ve taken these commitments together, and in the process, we’ve assisted our partners in building their institutional capacities, improving security, offering limited legal avenues for immigration, and supporting economic growth.
Our goal is to strengthen regional border security to combat migrant smuggling, to promote temporary legal work in the region, and ensure that our partners do their share to provide assistance to vulnerable migrants and protection seekers closer to home.
Mexico is a vital partner for the United States, with whom we share democratic values, cultural ties, and common security interests. Mexico is an equally vital partner as we address the humanitarian and security crisis on the U.S. southern border.
The U.S.-Mexico joint declaration on migration announced on June 7th reflects a scale and level of commitment not seen before. It is proof of President Trump’s commitment to the American people to confront illegal immigration and other problems along the U.S. southwest border, as well as President Lopez Obrador’s constructive work with us to the benefit of both countries.
Since the joint declaration, the number of irregular migrants arriving at our southwest border has dropped by more than 50 percent, but we still need to make further progress. In recent months, Mexico has increased migration enforcement through the deployment of Mexican National Guard throughout Mexico in support of the expansion of the existing Migrant Protection Protocols across the entire southwest border.
In Central America, the U.S. Government is actively pursuing a number of different solutions to address the crisis. As previously mentioned, we’ve entered into agreements and arrangements with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, aimed at increasing border security, deterring illegal immigration, providing protection to vulnerable individuals closer to home, and opening opportunities for legal jobs in the United States through expanded H-2A guest worker programs.
In a collaborative effort, the U.S. is also partnering with these governments to expedite the repatriation of foreign nationals with final orders of removal from the United States. Meanwhile, we continue to work with our partners in Guatemala, Honduras, and Salvador to improve economic, security, and governance conditions in these countries.
In October, following demonstrated progress by the three governments to reduce illegal immigration to the United States, and consistent with the direction of President Trump and Secretary Pompeo, the department announced its intention to move forward with some targeted foreign assistance. These programs will complement the security plans for each government, assist these governments in building their capacity to implement the recently signed agreements, and build stronger asylum systems.
I’ll close there, and open for questions.
MODERATOR: Great. We’ll start in the front here. Please state your name and to whom your question is going to. And wait for the microphone.
QUESTION: Paola de Orte, O Globo. Hello, Mr. Secretary. Hello, Jean. Thank you for doing this. My question is about safe third countries – third countries. When an agreement with Mexico was being negotiated – I guess it was in the first semester – there were reports that Mexico asked the U.S. Government to do the same kind of agreements with other countries, including Brazil. Later on, The New York Times reported that the secretary of Homeland Security had told the Guatemala Government that they were in negotiations with the Brazilian Government to make it a safe third country.
So my question is: Did the U.S. Government ask the Brazilian Government for it to become a safe third country? And what did the Brazilian Government respond? Thank you.
MR CUCCINELLI: I can speak to the fact that we have ongoing discussions with the Brazilians about a variety of mechanisms for both repatriation and related to the underlying migration itself. I bristle a little bit at the term “safe third country,” because that’s been incorrectly used in much of the discussion, so if you don’t mind me just taking a moment on that. That arose out of a misunderstanding at some point – predates my participation – but the American law isn’t determining – for instance, we’ll take Guatemala. There isn’t a determination of Guatemala as what’s called a “safe third country.” What is determined is whether they can safely and adequately conduct asylum processing and so forth – so capacity, do they have a justice system that can absorb all these things – and do it in a fashion that is safe for the participants. And obviously, Guatemala has been determined to fit all of those requirements, and those same judgments are in the midst of being analyzed for El Salvador, Honduras.
With Brazil, we have not moved along that far, but we do have open dialogue with them, and immigration issue continue to be discussed actively with Brazil. I would note that we are seeing more Brazilians show up at our southern border, and that is increasing the intensity on the U.S. side to find solutions to that part of this challenge that we’re facing right now. So you’ve hit on a hot topic in terms of Brazilian migration and how it relates to our southern border. I wish I could tell you we had a solution to expedite, to resolve that – to deal with those rising numbers. I can’t say that we have that right now, though if you were to ask ICE, who does repatriations, they will tell you that they don’t get major resistance from Brazil. Brazil cooperates. Those are all positive building blocks for us, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough given the regional migration patterns that are happening right now, Brazil’s escalating contribution to that. We need more out of them in terms of helping solve the problem, and that is a discussion that we are having with them right now. I don’t have anything to report on it, but – and I don’t know if the State would like to add anything, but we are interested in that.
MR RODRIGUEZ: If I could just speak my comment – so one of the elements that you point to is key to all of what we’re trying to accomplish, which is it has to be a cooperative effort. No one country can confront the migratory flows and the crises that exist, and so we’re looking for deeper partnerships with all of our neighbors to help play a role in both eliminating the push factors as well as controlling their borders and having a better sense of who is entering and who is leaving their countries and why. And so while – as Deputy Secretary Cuccinelli mentioned, there is – there are individuals leaving Brazil and working their way up to the U.S. southwest border, it’s sort of incumbent on – and everybody and every country through which they pass – to play their role to make sure that that is legitimate travel and they’re only facilitating travel for legitimate purposes. So we have had conversations with most of the governments in the Western Hemisphere about their border security and migration and asylum issues, so it’s not unusual that we would talk to Brazil about that.
QUESTION: A follow up, sorry. I just wanted to understand if the answer to the question – if the U.S. Government asked the Brazilian Government to do a similar agreement as the one you did to Guatemala, if the answer is yes or no.
MR CUCCINELLI: Yeah, I don’t think we’re prepared to go into the details of the conversations we’re having with the Brazilians. I don’t think they’d really appreciate that. I would say, as Hugo did, that it has been productive, but we haven’t reached a resolution point from the U.S. standpoint. We are trying to expand that partnership. I described some ways that it’s already working reasonably well – repatriations, for instance – but don’t have anything further than that to share with you at this time.
MODERATOR: Okay. For our next question, we’ll go to the gentleman here, and then to New York, and then back here.
QUESTION: Hi, good morning. Alex Segura from Agencia EFE. This is a question for Acting Deputy Secretary Cuccinelli. One of the main concerns of the safety of these – of those migrants or asylum seekers we’ve been talking about, but now they have to stay in these – I would say so-called “safe third countries” like Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, where the rates of violence and poverty are high. So my question is: Do you think – or why do you think these countries – keeping them in those countries is helpful for them? Or is it only a measure that helps the U.S. to slow down the migration rates?
And also, as Mr. Rodriguez pointed out, you’re talking to different governments, but – to maybe reach similar agreements, but can you give us a little bit more on that? Is any country close to agree to be a safe third country as well? Thank you.
MR CUCCINELLI: So with respect to the – to migration, we do want to both deal with our border and deter other people from coming. We want them to stay home or in the regions closer to home. And that is a goal of many of our policies – not all of them, but of many of them – and as I’m sure you’re aware, the trip itself is quite dangerous. It’s hard to get reliable statistics, but the interviews and the intel we get back from, for instance, women who are making the trip, show a large percentage of assaults and victimized children and so forth.
The only real way to stop that is for the trip not to take place. It’s part of why it’s so important for us to have achieved a point where what we would call “catch and release” – releasing people into the interior of the United States – is for all practical purposes over, especially out of Central America. Literally over 99 percent of folks that we encounter now are not released pending the outcome of any hearings that they have, and we’ve completed through the “Remain in Mexico” program over 11,000 proceedings. There’s about 60,000, roughly, people in the “Remain in Mexico” program; 11,000 cases have already been completed, and obviously those numbers keep piling up.
So we do want people to stay home. We do want to partner with the communities – the countries themselves to improve their own communities. Your comment about the challenges they face is true of any country. I mean, the United States has places that I wouldn’t go. And unfortunately, there are plenty of them.
While each of the nations that we’re talking about here faces those same challenges, they also have perfectly safe parts of their country that are functioning with functioning judiciaries and employment and those kinds of things.
And frankly, much of the leadership we see across the region seems very dedicated and sincere in its attempts to improve that. I’ll use one example who is among the newest in the region, and that’s President Bukele in El Salvador. I mean, what he’s done there – I’m a former state attorney general. I pay pretty close attention, for instance, to MS-13. When I was the Virginia attorney general across the river here, that was the most dangerous source of violence in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and there were people who said that they were – couldn’t be controlled by the government.
Well, the new incoming president dedicated to the safety and wellbeing of his country came in and has very quickly made meaningful and significant inroads into attacking that problem. That is – that kind of effort is something that we want to support. I know the State Department actively does that. I can also tell you that the last secretary of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, offered my services as a former state attorney general. I have a lot of experience with prisons and so forth.
And what they’re doing in that country is moving in the right direction, bringing greater safety. The reports we get from the U.S. embassy in El Salvador are outstanding, in terms of improvement there. This is all possible. There is reason for hope in this – in all of this. And I believe our partnerships help move down that path, and we’re committed to it as a country.
MS O’CONNELL: I just wanted to say that – and it’s also that we’re trying to make protection available for those that are fleeing available closer to their homes so that they do not – as the deputy secretary said, having to make the arduous journey to the United States. And we are working closely with the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, obviously, to ensure that people who are in need of protection are able to find that as close to home as possible.
MODERATOR: Great. For our next question we’ll go to the Foreign Press Center in New York, and then we’ll bring it back here.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. My name is Michael Persson from Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant. A question, twofold. First of them, the large flow of migrants to the U.S. earlier this year led to the metering process, and I was wondering if that metering is going down, sort of the flow of people in process is growing.
And second question: Is it the combination of the metering and the “Remain in Mexico” program? What’s the average time that people have to stay on the border before their case is being heard? So which combination of the metering, wait in line, and the “Remain in Mexico” program. Thank you.
MR CUCCINELLI: Sure. So earlier this year some of the – there was fairly significant violence at a number of the ports of entry. We still are facing occasional incursions, which shut down ports because we obviously have to perform literally physically defensive measures to deal with what goes from protest to violence in that instance. They are considerably rarer than they were in the beginning of the year and they are smaller than they were earlier in the year.
And normally at this point the lanes get closed for logistical reasons rather than to simply meter, but we are making sure that we don’t get ahead of our processing capacity because we are not releasing people into the interior of the United States any longer. So our – those speeds do matter in terms of the lines and so forth, and I can tell you that our partners on the other side of the border are very keen to make sure that we keep the economic traffic between the two countries rolling ahead as best we can. And of course, that involves inspections and their own border checks and so forth.
So – and those two compete for manpower – there’s no way around it – and facility space. However, if you look at the situation today compared to three months ago, six months ago, we are in a far, far better position, much more smooth trafficking through the ports of entry. It doesn’t mean people don’t wait, but we’re not facing the kind of threat of regular violence that I think we saw over the summer, for instance.
Your question with respect to total time for processing, if you – as I mentioned, we finished 11,000 cases so far now. The MPP began in the beginning of 2019 with one person, and we’re now up to 60,000. And the – thus far, and I’m estimating here so don’t hold me to this as gospel, but I’m kind of doing a little math about what I know about the initial hearing and then the merits hearing, is we’re probably looking in the range of four to six months, five to six months really, from start to finish for resolving a case. And we’re looking at ways – in fact, I spent part of this morning looking at ways to bring that processing time down further for the interest of everyone.
I mean, if you’re waiting for your case, you’d like to be done as quickly as you can. The United States wants to – we want to clear that case docket and we want to get the decisions made. And because some people, in fact, are coming into the United States when the merits of their case is heard and adjudicated. Others – more, far more – are being rejected because they were coming to the border, we believe, with an expectation that they’d be released into the interior rather than effectively kept out until those were heard.
So five to six months is probably the best time estimate right now, and we are working to try to bring that down. This whole process has been a learning process for us. We have never done this before. We’ve also never had this level of cooperation with – functional cooperation with Mexico on a topic like this before.
MODERATOR: For our next question we’ll go to Clara and then to you. I mean Carmen. Excuse me. Carmen.
QUESTION: Good afternoon. Carmen Rodriguez from La Prensa Grafica and Voz de la Diaspora from El Salvador. When will El Salvador and Honduras implement the program and to take or accept asylum seeker? And according to the efforts to fight against corruption in the Northern Triangle, U.S. said that will revoke visas to the government officials that are on the corruption list. Do you have ready this list? Can we know who are those officials from El Salvador – from government from El Salvador?
MR RODRIGUEZ: So to take your first question, we have ongoing discussions with the governments of El Salvador and Honduras about the types of measures that we can take together to reduce migration and to return potential migrants, and those conversations are ongoing. So we don’t have definitive dates. We are working very closely with Honduras, which will likely be the next country where we’ll be able to implement that agreement, hopefully very early in the new year. That’s our goal.
On the second part of your question about visas, we – visa conversations generally are only with the applicant. We have been, under new authorities, imposing lifetime visa bans and making that information public, but it is an ongoing process of reviewing both public and private records pertaining to corruption, pertaining to all sorts of criminal behavior. In some cases, those visas will be revoked quietly and only the visa holder will be informed, and in other cases, we make that information public when it fulfills the statutory authority that we have. But in terms of like a list that we go off of, I don’t think a list in that way exists. It’s a constant evolution, and as information comes to our – comes to our attention, we will evaluate the – their – let me say their eligibility to continue to hold a visa.
MR CUCCINELLI: I would note, Acting Secretary Wolf will be in Guatemala tomorrow, his first trip since he became acting secretary. And among the items, not surprisingly, on the agenda is the functioning and health and growth of ACA in and with Guatemala. So that will be a primary item that he talks about with the president there.
MODERATOR: All right, we have time for a couple more questions. We’ll go to this gentleman here, and then to you.
QUESTION: Hi. Cristobal Vasquez, Caracol Radio. So Colombia’s going through perhaps the worst migration crisis in the continent with more than 1.5 million Venezuelans crossing the border. In addition to this crisis, well, many migrants that come from South America and want to make it to the U.S. have to cross through Colombia. It is known that there are FARC dissidents that have migrated to Venezuela, to Cuba, and to other parts of the continent. Have you registered, perhaps, cases of FARC dissidents or other Colombian terrorists that have tried to migrate to the U.S. or cross the border illegally?
MR CUCCINELLI: We certainly vet for them, and historically, for many years, I think, we’ve had a – I’d characterize as a good working relationship with Colombia on these sorts of matters. And we have not seen what I would call a trend of FARC members seeking admission, either legally or illegally, into the United States. But it is something – they are – particularly in our own hemisphere, they are among the priorities that we are vetting for. And under this President, one of the first things he did was insist on a much more vigorous vetting process really across the board in – with our allies and in countries where, frankly, we have a harder time with that. Colombia’s not among those; they’re in the former category. So this is not something that I would say has become a systemic problem, but it is something we are continually on guard for. And we do – we do have, as I said, a fairly lengthy and positive relationship with our counterparts in Colombia.
MR RODRIGUEZ: I will just add on top of that that we focus a lot of attention on the Asylum Cooperative Agreements, but we are also talking with governments about a full range of cooperation, including mentoring and training efforts on the part of DHS with border security agencies across Central America. One of those elements that’s really critical is the ability to screen who is coming into the country and what types of red flags might be associated with each of those individuals, to have a better idea of who is moving through, to share data back and forth between our databases and their databases. So this – it’s a – it’s not just the ACAs, it is a full range of cooperation and skill-building and institutional strengthening that we’re doing with our counterparts across Central America.
MODERATOR: All right, we’ll go in the front here, and then maybe time for one more question after that.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Herbert Zepeda from Voice of America. My question is related to the TPS, specifically Salvadorans holding the TPS program. So the President Nayib Bukele says that the extension – the period of extension comes an extra year after 2021. So I would like to confirm is that is a fact. I mean, also in DHS webpage shows, like, it’s going to have an extra 365 days. So I would like to know is that is true, if you confirm that.
MR CUCCINELLI: Sure. That is correct. I want to clarify that it is – the timeline laid out there that you’re referencing is correct, but it also runs from the end of the litigation. And we presume – I think with very strong basis – to believe that we’ll prevail on the TPS litigation, particularly since the statute that underlies it says courts don’t get to review it, and yet courts are reviewing it, so – which causes other problems. But your interpretation of that is correct. So if the litigation continues to take a while – and I will say this, our courts don’t move quickly – then that would be the timeline we’d anticipate. And unlike some of the other countries, El Salvador has that 365-day workout period.
I would note that Salvadorans make up well over half of all TPS recipients from all countries combined, so there is a logistical reason to build more time in for the transition for El Salvador. It’s – the numbers are quite large, over a quarter million.
MODERATOR: All right, last question.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. This is Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV. Sir, building the wall and stop the illegal immigration was a part of President Trump manifesto in 2016. As you know, he’s trying to keep at fulfilling all his promises, so there is a general perception in America and all around the world that the current administration is arresting and deporting the record number of refugees. So is it true? Because as far as I know, I mean, thousands of people arrested and deported in Obama tenure too, so do you have any kind of number, or do you want to say about – something about this general perception?
MR CUCCINELLI: Could you – I missed the middle part of your question. Can you restate that?
QUESTION: Sir, I just wanted to ask that – is it correct that the current administration is arresting and deporting the record number of refugees? It’s a general perception in America and all around the world, because I mean, as far as I know, I mean, in the Obama tenure thousands of people were arrested and deported.
MR CUCCINELLI: So just to – happy to answer the question. Just let me correct one item of terminology. We don’t deport any refugees. We – refugees are people who have legal status similar to asylum – same legal standard – but they come to this country from other parts of the world, and frankly, they don’t come here until they have passed our legal standards. So it would be – it’s pretty darn rare to be deporting a refugee. If that happens, it’s because they have done something affirmatively – typically some criminal act – that takes them out of the status of being welcome here. So just to get our terminology straight.
With respect to deportations, rough numbers, we are removing about 250,000 people a year at the current pace. That is not as many as the Obama administration reached. Their peak year I think was around 400,000 in a year. So – and part of the reason, frankly, that the number is that low is because many of the ICE officers who are responsible for removals have been surged to the border and they are backing up CBP and their caseload has shifted from interior enforcement inside the United States to our borders. Now, we do have other programs like ENV, which is a no – it’s an electronic document, so no paper documents return with our Central American allies, and ICE is doing all of that at a pretty healthy pace, really, and hundreds going each week, and that’s measured in thousands pretty quickly.
But overall, total numbers, in part because of the crisis at the southern border, ICE agents have been drawn away to a certain degree from interior enforcement, so that is something that we seek to bring back up. And also, I don’t want to leave out the employment-based enforcement, so at work sites. The one people all saw on the news was Mississippi with five different locations this summer, but there are smaller versions of that that go on pretty regularly.
Thank you all very much.
MODERATOR: And with that, I’m going to thank our distinguished panel and thank you all for attending. The briefing is now concluded.