Acting Head Of Customs And Border Protection Says New Asylum Rule In 'Pilot' Phase

Jul 18, 2019
Originally published on August 6, 2019 2:54 pm

Updated July 19 at 12:25 p.m. ET

Mark Morgan, acting head of Customs and Border Protection, said on Thursday that his agency is rolling out the Trump administration's new asylum rule as a small "pilot" for now but that officials expect it to be blocked in court.

The rule is a major change in U.S. asylum law. It effectively denies asylum protection to most migrants arriving at the Southern border unless they first apply in a country they passed through on the way.

"Although the new federal regulation allows us to apply that all 2,000 miles along the Southwest border, we're not going to do that. We're really piloting it in just one location," Morgan said during an interview on All Things Considered.

In a statement on Friday, Morgan said that he was not referring to implementation of the new rule "as a whole." He said the rule applies to all migrants who didn't previously apply for asylum in another country but for now his agency is only putting it into place in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas at two CBP stations.

"That location is briefed, and they know what to do and how to do that now," he said. "It's very limited," he said.

Morgan said he doesn't expect the policy to be in place for long.

"We're actually anticipating the ... regulation will be enjoined. And then we'll have to go from there, as unfortunately, many times, this happens," Morgan said.

Two federal lawsuits that have been filed in California and Washington, D.C.

Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union's immigrant rights project said the administration hadn't presented the rule as limited in court where the rule is being challenged.

"It may be that the government is backtracking given the plain illegality of the rule. But whether it applies across the southern border or only in two places, it will cause serious harm and we will continue to challenge the new rule," Gelernt said.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, whose officers interview asylum seekers, did not respond to requests for comment. That agency issued guidance earlier this week, saying the rule applies to migrants who cross the southern border and took effect Tuesday.

Morgan, who has been on the job for two weeks after spending just a month as acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also addressed an internal CBP investigation into a private Border Patrol Facebook group that circulated obscene images of Democrats in Congress and ridiculed people who have crossed the border illegally.

"It was horrendous," Morgan said.

"Some of the images that were out there, absolutely horrendous, wrong and not consistent with the way CBP, or specifically, Border Patrol conducts themselves."

"We're going to hold these people responsible," Morgan said, adding that offenders could face criminal charges.

"I don't know whether the actions will satisfy any of the elements of criminal charges, but that has been talked about just to show how serious we're taking that," Morgan said.

Nearly all high-level immigration officials at the Department of Homeland Security are serving in an acting capacity. Morgan acknowledged "that any time you have turnover, there is some impact."

But he said it doesn't affect his job.

"We do the same job, we have the same authority, same responsibilities whether acting is in front of our name or not. I don't wake up the morning changing anything I do because I have 'acting' in front of my name," he said.

On Thursday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan testified to Congress that there has been a 28% drop in the number of migrants taken into custody at the Southern border in the last month.

Morgan credited Mexico for helping to slow the flow of migrants.

"The support that they've shown now in the recent couple of weeks is unprecedented. And we're seeing it there. They're ... tightening up their Southern border. They're sending more troops to the U.S. Mexico border. And it's definitely having an impact," Morgan said.

: 7/17/19

A previous Web version of this story referred to Kevin McAleenan as the homeland security secretary. He is the acting secretary.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the acting director of Homeland Security testified before Congress today, the most pointed questions were about immigration and the U.S. border with Mexico. In another part of the program we're going to hear from lawmakers who questioned the acting secretary today. Now we're going to talk with the man who oversees U.S. immigration policy at the border. Mark Morgan is the Trump administration's acting head of Customs and Border Protection. He took that job two weeks ago, after just over a month as acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Welcome to the studio.

MARK MORGAN: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Let me begin, Commissioner Morgan, by asking you about big changes that have happened just in the two weeks that you've been on the job. One is that people seeking asylum are now required to petition for asylum in a country that they pass through on the way to the United States. U.S. border officials have said they had less than a day's notice to implement this change; they weren't fully briefed on the policy. Is that a recipe for success?

MORGAN: Yes, it is. And so you've got to remember - when a new policy like this is going to happen, although the new federal regulation allows us to apply that all 2,000 miles along the southwest border, we're not going to do that. So we're really piloting it in just one location. That location is briefed, and they know what to do and how to do that.

SHAPIRO: Do you anticipate that this is going to expand along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, and if so, what's the timeline for that?

MORGAN: That would be the goal. Right now, though, we've already - two lawsuits - one, I believe, in California and D.C., looking to enjoin - we're actually anticipating that probably the regulation will be enjoined, and then we'll have to go from there, as - unfortunately, many times this happens. But that would be the goal. Timeline is always dependent on how successful the pilot is and what we learn from that going forward. So I wouldn't be able to give you a timeline.

SHAPIRO: Depends on success of the program and litigation?

MORGAN: Correct. Exactly. Exactly.

SHAPIRO: The whole country, I think, reacted to a photograph we saw a few weeks ago of a father and daughter who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande.

MORGAN: Tragic.

SHAPIRO: Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 23-month-old child Valeria. Previously, people could present themselves in the U.S. with a reasonable expectation that they might be granted asylum. Now that they are expected to present themselves in a country that they pass through...

MORGAN: Correct.

SHAPIRO: ...If they want to enter the U.S., that door is effectively closed. Do you fear that more people will risk their lives trying to cross, the way that Oscar and Valeria did?

MORGAN: So remember - it's not closed; it just means that now, that initial credible fear application has been taken away from them. They can still come and apply for a higher degree of asylum, and they're still going to go through a process here. I think that's key. It's not that they're barred from that. But what I would say is we're actually trying to prevent these individuals from taking the long trek.

The picture you just described of the father, who - he jumped in the Rio Grande to save his daughter, right? We don't want that. We don't want them taking this - a perilous trek to do that. That's part of this whole process here. Meanwhile, keep in mind - that's happening. Who's getting rich doing that? The cartels. It's a multibillion dollar business.

SHAPIRO: But I just have to ask one more time...

MORGAN: Sure.

SHAPIRO: ...Given that people want to enter the U.S. and the bar has been raised farther, do you think more people are going to take those risky paths that you would prefer they not take and put their lives in danger?

MORGAN: No, what I'm hoping is that they realize that coming here illegally and taking that perilous trek is not going to get them entry, that they'll stop coming.

SHAPIRO: Commissioner Morgan, one reason that President Trump wanted you in this position is that you have consistently defended his immigration policies on cable news. This is something that you said to Tucker Carlson on Fox News in January.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

MORGAN: I've been to the detention facilities, where I've walked up to these individuals that are so-called minors, 17 or under, and I've looked at them, and I've looked at their eyes, Tucker, and I said that is a soon-to-be MS-13 gang member. It's unequivocal.

SHAPIRO: Do you regret those remarks?

MORGAN: So no, I don't - I think when you look back and you're out there and you're putting yourself out there and you're talking a lot, would I say I wish I would have rephrased it? Yes. Yes, absolutely. I think I wish I would have phrased it is that - I think what I'm absolutely looking at is potential gang members, and the facts prove that out. A couple of years ago ICE did an operation where they went after and they apprehended a lot of gang members. Forty percent of those gang members came in under the family unit or unaccompanied minor program.

So people join gangs for the same reason they have forever, right? They're looking for - they're looking to belong. They're looking for guidance. They're looking for social status. They're looking for finance. It goes on and on and on. And so when you take a vulnerable population - a child comes here. They have no parents. They have no guidance. They have no supervision. They're unskilled, uneducated. They don't speak the language. They are prime candidates to be recruited for gangs. I know that. I've worked it. That's what I meant - I was trying to say.

SHAPIRO: Let me ask broadly about the culture of the organization you lead. Matthew Klein, the assistant commissioner in charge of the Office of Professional Responsibility, told reporters on Monday that his office is investigating at least 62 current Border Patrol agents who belong to this secret Facebook group we've been hearing about. ProPublica published screenshots that included obscene images and threats to Democrats in Congress. What are you doing about the sense within your organization that it is acceptable to mock and denigrate and dehumanize people who have crossed the border illegally?

MORGAN: So I'm glad you asked that - and two things. So let me start off by saying it was horrendous, all right? Some of the images were out there - absolutely horrendous, wrong and not consistent with the way that CBP, or specifically Border Patrol, conducts themselves - period. What I would say is that it also, though, does not represent the culture of the Border Patrol. I've seen just the opposite. I've seen Border Patrol agents out there treating these - some of these same kids we're talking about, right?

SHAPIRO: I appreciate that you've seen that; we've also seen images that show a different side of the culture. So my question is, what are you doing to eradicate the side of the culture that is less pleasant than what you're describing?

MORGAN: So I think part of it is - we're coming on shows just like this - right? - and talking about it and saying that it's unacceptable, unequivocally. I think everybody needs to hear it from the commissioner, acting commissioner of CBP, that those posts are absolutely unacceptable. It's wrong. And we are going to fully investigate that. You know, I know - Matt has already reported to me, and he's keeping me up to date daily, by the way.

SHAPIRO: That's Matt Klein, the assistant commissioner in charge of the Office of Professional Responsibility that I mentioned, yeah.

MORGAN: Right. Kind of - internal affairs, just in case people don't understand that. So he's actually providing me daily updates. And he's expediting that. We've got a team together. We're fully investigating that. And we're going to hold these people responsible to include - I mean, we're actually looking at potential criminal charges. Now, I don't know whether the actions will satisfy the elements of criminal charges, but that has been talked about, just to show how serious we're taking that.

We've already put several people on administrative leave, which, by the way, that's a huge deal. We're taking them off their law enforcement duties. They lose pay. We've already done that. We've given numerous cease-and-desist letters as well. And I can promise American people we're going to hold them accountable.

SHAPIRO: We're in this funny situation right now where you have been in this acting capacity, in this job for two weeks, having been in acting capacity in a different job for about a month. Your boss, in an acting capacity, is testifying on Capitol Hill. Almost all of the leaders at Homeland Security are acting, and it is one of the highest priorities of this administration. So how do you implement a coherent border policy under those circumstances?

MORGAN: Acting - so the only people that are really concerned about acting are people like you.

SHAPIRO: Well, and presumably the big guys at the White House who have to work with the people in their cabinet who are a rotating cast of characters.

MORGAN: So nobody that I've worked with, with the White House or the secretary or anybody else, has ever worried about whether acting is in front of our name or not. I don't wake up in the morning changing anything I do because I have acting in front of my name.

SHAPIRO: There has been more turnover in the Department of Homeland Security in this administration than at any time in my memory. That's got to have an impact.

MORGAN: I think that, yeah, anytime you have a turnover, there's some impact. I agree. I think that's reasonable to say. But you got to remember - the men and women of CBP, whether I'm here tomorrow or I'm here for two years, what they do every single day, they're going to keep doing it.

SHAPIRO: Mark Morgan is the Trump administration's acting head of Customs and Border Protection.

Thank you for coming into the studio today.

MORGAN: You bet, Ari. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.