U.S Department of State
Special Briefing via Telephone
Ken Cuccinelli, Acting Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security
January 27, 2020
Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Media Hub of the Americas in Miami, Florida. I’d like to welcome our participants dialed in from the United States and across the region. This is an on-the-record conference all with Ken Cuccinelli, Acting Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Acting Deputy Secretary Cuccinelli will update on efforts to address the security and humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border and strengthen U.S. partnerships across Central America to confront irregular and illegal migration at the source and uphold the rule of law. He will give brief remarks and then answer questions from participating journalists.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to Acting Deputy Secretary Cuccinelli. Go ahead, sir.
Acting Deputy Secretary Cuccinelli: Hi, it’s Ken Cuccinelli.
Moderator: And can someone please mute their line? We’re getting some feedback here. Mr. Cuccinelli is beginning.
Acting Deputy Secretary Cuccinelli: Good afternoon, you all. I am Ken Cuccinelli. I’m the Acting Deputy Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, and I appreciate you all joining us today to hear about the progress the Trump administration has made on immigration and the regional effort that’s taking place to deal with the flow of illegal immigration to the United States. President Trump is certainly using every tool available to him in the American system to address the humanitarian and security crisis at our southwest border, and each of these different efforts have contributed to the declines we’ve seen in border apprehensions over the past seven months.
And, of course, as he reiterated – as the President reiterated in Davos, a responsibility of every nation is its own protection. The U.S. has a duty to protect its own borders, just as Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, all the way down into the hemisphere, have such a duty to protect their own borders. And we’re going to continue to use all of our resources to do just that.
The U.S. is committed to helping our neighbors to the south achieve a Central America that’s both secure and economically prosperous for its people, one that families feel confident building their homes in and one that we as Americans will feel happy and continue to look forward to partnering with them in the years to come.
Here in the U.S. things have changed over the course of the last year. Apprehensions at the U.S. southern border are down, and for good reason: People realize that the journey is essentially futile at this point, and that illegal migrants are going to be promptly returned. You look back one year – that’s a big change. And we’re almost at the one-year anniversary of the commencement of MPP, the Remain in Mexico program. The one-year anniversary will be this Wednesday, two days from now. And since the height of the most recent crisis in May of last year, the number of apprehensions at the border has plummeted by more than 71 percent. That’s through December of 2019. Of great importance, the number of Central American family units has decreased by 85 percent during that same period. And these numbers are going down for a few different reasons.
One is implementation of programs at our border that restore integrity to our own immigration system, while rooting out fraud. That has been a big change. There are a lot of different programs we have implemented to accomplish that. A second is our work with our Central American partners. A lot of the news here in the U.S. has been about the asylum cooperative agreements and how they have advanced. That’s in effect and been functioning in Guatemala. But we’ve also had border security agreements that you saw some of the fruit of it this past couple of weeks, again in Central America, with the really – I wouldn’t want to say stopping, but – how they dealt with the caravan themselves, and especially Mexico, but in Central America, Guatemala was notable for that in how different their efforts were. And third is just the increased enforcement action by Mexico – sovereign country defending their own borders – and we can all remember when they were presented with mobs essentially fighting their way through gates and so forth last year. Well, this year, they have been much better prepared and they dealt with it their way. They – we would have done things differently at the U.S. border. Mexico has made its own decisions, has obviously decisively defended its own border and intervened with the most recent caravan very effectively, and frankly, their repatriation speed is better than ours on a similar scale. So they’re to be commended for their effectiveness.
I would also note that over the course of the last year when you look at Guatemala, you look at El Salvador, just as examples, things have improved there. The record that President Bukele has established in El Salvador in public safety is really extraordinary given the speed with which he’s accomplished it, really affecting in a very favorable way – unless you’re a member of MS-13. MS-13’s ability to do business out of their prisons – he’s really cracked down on that, more arrests. And we saw El Salvador arrest a caravan organizer in the last couple of weeks who may go ahead to be, I think, the first person charged under their human smuggling laws. That kind of assertiveness on their part, their aggressiveness on public safety, has had a tremendous impact and there’s good reasons why his favorability ratings in El Salvador are very high, but he’s also contributing to regional security, safety, and stability, and certainly we in America recognize that. He and his whole administration are to be commended, and we appreciate that.
Here in the U.S., we’ve restored integrity to our asylum system in part by requiring asylum seekers who arrive at our border to first prove that they sought asylum in a country through which they passed before reaching the United States. Asylum is supposed to be about safety, not convenience. And we certainly intend to preserve our system to protect people for whom it’s appropriate, but we expect people coming to our border to not try to game the system and abuse it. There’s also no more catch and release into the interior of the United States. Instead, people who arrive at the border are returned to Mexico to await their immigration hearings or they’re returned to their home country. Under MPP, the Remain in Mexico program, those who are placed in the program are able to live and work in Mexico while their immigration proceedings are going on, and those are expedited; they’re treated as detained hearings, so it’s as if they’re in detention in the United States for purposes of the speed of the hearings they get. So that’s moving along very quickly.
We’ve also built over 100 new miles of border wall, and continue to make steady and accelerating progress on the border wall. It’s not just a physical barrier. It has technology to track those who are entering the country illegally. It’s state of the art. It’s a major deterrent for illegal activity, not just migration but drug flows as well. And it also serves to protect our Border Patrol agents, which is obviously a high priority for us as it is for every country to keep your own law enforcement officers safe and secure while doing their job.
The funding for that has been approved. President Trump’s team at the Defense Department and at Customs and Border Protection are moving quickly now to have 450 miles of border wall built or under major construction before this year is out. The MPP and the border wall, paired with the policy and regulatory and international reforms that we’ve made here in the United States, are critical to averting a further crisis in the long term. We are not unmindful of the possibility that while the flows have gone down for seven months, they can go back up, and we’re preparing to handle that as well.
Friends and family in the United States should urge their loved ones considering the journey to remain home, and I say that as someone who, as the head of our legal immigration component, the United States Citizen and Immigration Services, had the honor of overseeing the swearing-in of tens of thousands of new American citizens from Central and South America last year who came to the United States legally. We have a robust legal immigration system, and people in this hemisphere have been tremendous beneficiaries and contributors to the United States through that system, and we’re happy to see them do so.
That said, the illegal immigrants coming to our borders are treated very differently. It is illegal, and we deal with it that way, which is why we want people here in the U.S. now to let their family and friends know back in home countries that that’s how things are happening at our border now.
All the actions of the Trump administration that we’re taking to secure the border also help protect vulnerable populations – women and children – from the exploitation of traffickers, smugglers, and TCOs, transnational criminal organizations, who have been making money off the illegal flows of the last year and before, and that’s something we obviously have an interest in impeding, just as Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and so on do as well. That’s a mutual, shared interest of all of our nations.
The efforts of DHS, the administration, and our international partners mean migrants remain closer to home instead of taking the dangerous journey that we’re talking about. Our efforts are largely closing the door on the criminal organizations who profit from migrants’ suffering by taking advantage of our broken system.
The Trump administration has been working in cooperation with the governments of Central America in the development of a regional security framework. I mentioned this at the beginning of my remarks. And we’re offering our assistance on a variety of fronts that we hope will be tremendously helpful to stopping the flows of illegal immigrants to the U.S. DHS has sent dozens of personnel to the region for training and to advise our partners on border security management. As I mentioned before, they may not do it the same way that we do, but we share with them at the professional level the benefit of our experience, the things we’ve been learning, especially over the last year, and they implement it in ways that are best suited to their country.
The governments of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and others in the region are doing what they feel is best for their own citizens, but there is a growing consensus that unmitigated, illegal immigration has negative consequences. It fosters other criminal activity, it hides other criminal activity, it victimizes the most vulnerable populations, it contributes to citizens’ insecurity, and it degrades economic opportunity and growth in the region. We recognize the resolve of regional governments to secure their borders, enhance their country’s border security, and manage mass migration, especially illegal migration, in a controlled manner. Their efforts have led to hundreds of individuals being stopped, apprehended, and sent back to their home countries, including interdicting what was clear human smuggling.
We’ve already seen it at work with the caravan that arose in the last two weeks attempting to push their way to the United States. We’re pleased that through our collaboration with local immigration and security officials, we’ve been able to provide the training and technical expertise to regional partners that they’ve requested and that they’ve found helpful. And we saw them using their professionalism and their expertise and their commitment in the last couple of weeks; it’s been highlighted in how they’ve dealt with this caravan that we saw over the last two weeks.
And I mentioned the arrest of the caravan organizer in El Salvador. That’s a caravan that really never got going because of El Salvador’s actions to enforce their laws, to keep their people from being exploited.
What we’ve seen and experienced over the last several years is that the security of the region is interconnected and it’s closely linked. U.S. security is linked to the security of our regional partners and allies, and their – and our partners’ security is linked to ours. We have mutual interests and those have been discussed frequently. I want to say the Secretary of Homeland Security has been involved in something like 10 multilateral conversations with the ministers, his equivalents across Central America. Those are continuing month by month and the communication has been just tremendous back and forth.
To sum it up, our Central American partners are not just our neighbors, but they’re our allies and we want to do all we can to be the best neighbor and ally in return. And thank you, and with that, I’ll be happy to open it up to a few questions.
Moderator: Our first question comes from the line of Ted Hesson. Please, go ahead.
Question: Hi. Acting Deputy Secretary Cuccinelli, thank you for holding the call. I – this is Ted Hesson with Reuters. I wanted to ask you, first of all, if you’re able to comment on a decision that just came down from the Supreme Court that will allow the public charge regulation to go into effect during litigation.
And then second, I was wondering if you could shed light on deportations to Brazil and whether the administration plans to step those up or consider Brazil even as a safe third country as part of its broader strategy.
Acting Deputy Secretary Cuccinelli: Sure. So obviously, we’re happy to see the Supreme Court step in the way they did here. And I would remind you that in September they did something just like it with the MPP program. It is very clear the U.S. Supreme Court is fed up with these national injunctions by judges who are trying to impose their policy preferences, instead of enforcing the law. And we see this again with the Supreme Court stepping in in the way they have here, and we very much appreciate it.
I hope some of these activist district court judges will finally get the message that they need to deal with the law and not their policy preferences. If they want to do that, they can get out and run for Congress, but that’s not their role. So we’re glad to see that.
With respect to Brazil, DHS in addition, of course, to the Department of State and other elements of the U.S. Government have very active ongoing discussions with Brazil about several aspects of our relationship. We have a big economic relationship with Brazil; that’s something we value and we hope they do as well. We have had a problem with rising numbers of Brazilians coming to our borders illegally and our efforts to contend with that. Now, Brazil has been, I would say, a pretty good partner in terms of our repatriation efforts. They’re cooperative in that regard in terms of getting the documents that are needed to make that happen expeditiously. But we do not have something like the ENV program like we have with some of our Central American allies.
We also have – because we’re seeing more families come, we are looking at other alternatives other than repatriation. So we – these are part of the discussions we have with other countries about those families seeking asylum from Brazil. Would they fit into asylum cooperative agreements appropriately? Those are live discussions. And as well, we’re always having ongoing discussions with Mexico just kind of updating with our partner on the MPP program.
So this is a very live topic. I think – I hope we’ll see more progress not just from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador in helping us contend with this particular flow, that of Brazilians coming up illegally from the country, but also from Brazil itself in stepping in. Brazil has been a bit of a conduit for people from beyond the Western Hemisphere to come up through to the United States. We hope to see better policing, more security like we talked about in my – earlier in my remarks, the security arrangements with Central American nations. They are policing their own borders. They are doing this – they’re, frankly, seizing their own sovereignty and making – and protecting it better. We would hope to see Brazil doing that more in addition to expediting the return of their own nationals who are coming to our country illegally. That is an important part of being a good ally.
They have large numbers of illegals coming to the United States and they need to face up to that and start to deal with it more aggressively than they have in the past. And I hope that we’ll be exercising more tools very soon, hopefully with their cooperation, to expedite return of Brazilians. And we hope they’ll, frankly, take an active role – flying their own people back, for instance, expediting the documentation needed to accomplish that. All the [inaudible] that because they are in our, I’ll say, top five in this hemisphere – five or six – it is a big deal to see Brazil stepping up more, and we’re seeking more cooperation from others in helping to deal with that on a more regional basis.
Thanks for your questions, Ted.
Moderator: There’s a great deal of interest, but unfortunately, we have very limited time. We have time for one last question, and that question goes to Ben Fox of Associated Press. Please, open line 24.
Question: Hi. Thanks for having this call. I was wondering if you could talk about what kinds of security assistance the U.S. is now – the Trump administration is providing to the Northern Triangle countries and Mexico to both sort of interrupt the caravans but also to sort of, more broadly, assist with control of immigration.
Acting Deputy Secretary Cuccinelli: So we have border security agreements that you’ve heard about in the context of the asylum cooperative agreements with Guatemala, developing that with Honduras, and El Salvador. Some of that includes the sharing of information. So, for instance, the individual arrested in El Salvador under their human smuggling law, his brother is an identified MS-13 member. And so that kind of close association, obviously, gives us concern. It is useful from an intelligence standpoint for both El Salvador’s law enforcement and for ours to be sharing that information. That is a – that’s – that is the kind of thing that has developed over the course of the last year.
We have not had U.S. personnel actively engaged in the enforcement actions you’ve seen over the last couple of weeks. We’ve observed it, we’ve shared information, but they are doing the enforcement of their own laws in their own countries. We are there advising and, as I said, we’ve learned a lot in the last year and we’re trying to share some of our lessons with the Central American countries in terms of just the mechanics of how we do enforcement. So literally, down to the individual officer level – that’s in the form of training and advice – as well as strategies for dealing with larger-scale migration, as you saw with the caravan. And Guatemala took one approach: They repatriated hundreds of illegals who entered their country against their law, in violation of their law. Mexico took a very different approach – they took actually several approaches and did it their own way.
Now, we do not have the kind of border security agreements with Mexico. They operate on their own, and as you saw, they’ve been very effective at doing that. In the last year, they’ve stood up their national guard to deal with immigration incursions in their country and defended their borders effectively – much more effectively – as well as policing their northern border more effectively.
Again, I look back a year and the difference is just enormous in what Mexico has accomplished in that time and, frankly, it’s been very impressive. I joke in the United States that Mexico has done more to deal with illegal immigration than the U.S. Congress has, and I – that’s only a half joke because it’s true. That being said, we look to tie tighter strings with our allies, we want to help them more, and we seek their help more. The information-sharing is tremendous for us when we enter – when we encounter people at our border to know what they already know about some of their nationals that are traveling illegally, and we expect to continue to do that because it bears fruit on both sides. It bears fruit in their home countries when they’re dealing with their public safety and national security, and it bears fruit for us at our border and our interior when we’re dealing with national security, particularly as it relates to illegal immigration and all the other things that are hidden in that flow of illegals.
I appreciate your all’s time today. I’m sorry that I have to step off at this point, but appreciate the chance to share this with you.
Moderator: That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Acting Deputy Secretary Cuccinelli for joining us, and thanks to all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Miami Media Hub at [email protected]. Thank you and have a good day.