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What Does It Mean Politically That More People Are Crossing The Border?


It's been a hard few days for the White House. The president said he needed to walk away from a nuclear deal with North Korea. He said he wanted to shrink the trade deficit, but the figures for 2018 show the deficit way up. Apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border are also going up, and the number of arrests at the border are typically taken as a sign of more people crossing illegally.

Adam Kennedy is on the line. He's deputy assistant to the president and deputy White House communications director. Good morning. Welcome back to the program.

ADAM KENNEDY: Good morning. Thanks for having me on again, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's it mean that more people are crossing the border?

KENNEDY: What it means is that we're seeing another big surge of people - in this case, particularly family units and unaccompanied minors - that are trying to illegally cross our border. We saw about 76,000 people be apprehended trying to illegally cross the border, and we're seeing a vast majority of these be family units, unaccompanied minors. So it's a big change in the demographics of the people trying to cross the border.

INSKEEP: Now, I want to figure out what's going wrong here or if there is something going wrong here. I know the president has advocated a wall. He doesn't have more wall yet, but there is a U.S. government plan advocated by this administration put in place to get people who want to ask for asylum to wait their turn in Mexico, to apply in Mexico. Why are they not doing that?

KENNEDY: Well, they still - where they cross the border, they're still to be apprehended. They're still to be processed. Then they can claim asylum or not before they're redirected back to Mexico. So it's not just a one-stop process. And again, this is a very legalistic procedural situation that doesn't just kind of have easy solutions. The president has tried again and again to work with Congress to fix our broken laws that prevent us from easily removing people. Unfortunately, Democrats have refused to budge on it.

INSKEEP: And when you say easily removing people, we're talking about the amount of judicial review - whether somebody should get in front of an immigration officer or in front of a judge to see their...

KENNEDY: Absolutely. Absolutely.

INSKEEP: ...Claim of asylum heard. What does it mean, do you think, that Congress, including some prominent Republicans, appear likely to vote down the president's national emergency declaration that he used to claim some money to build some wall?

KENNEDY: You know, I think Republicans, particularly in the Senate - they just need to do their job and back the president's lawful national emergency. I think a lot of them are concerned after President Obama decided to make law and change existing law through executive action, but that's not what this president is doing. This president is enforcing the laws made by Congress and providing the resources our law enforcement says is necessary to do that.

INSKEEP: You know, I understand the president says, I am claiming emergency powers. And some of his supporters in Congress have said, well, Congress delegated the powers. He's using them. But there is the question about whether this is an emergency, whether it's really a crisis.

When I hear the word emergency, when I hear the word crisis, I think, well, the government must feel they need to act quickly. They act fast. They can't keep asking Congress. They must move now. And the president's solution is to build a wall - $8 billion, couple hundred miles of wall. Do you have in mind, roughly, how many years it will take to build 200 miles of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border?

KENNEDY: Well, let's be clear. We just talked about the new DHS numbers showing apprehensions are way up.


KENNEDY: Secretary Nielsen was just before Congress talking about how this is a humanitarian and security crisis. So the idea that this isn't an immediate crisis, I think, is dispelled by the last two days and the past two years, really. They have shown such a massive increase in immigration of a specific type, which is...

INSKEEP: But your answer to this - but your answer to what you describe as a crisis is something that you're not going to finish for five years, 10 years. Pick your number.

KENNEDY: Well, you still start the process. You still start building. We've already started building six miles in Texas, and we continue to. We've deployed U.S. soldiers to the border to support law enforcement. So we're doing both immediate things, and we're doing more long-term, permanent things so that we're not seeing the same problem 10 years down the road, which is what past administrations have tried to do, essentially - is kick the can.

INSKEEP: Adam Kennedy, I want to ask also about North Korea. As I'm sure you know very well, satellite imagery has shown that North Korea has been rebuilding facilities at a rocket testing site, facilities that had been dismantled before the summit that did not work out. What does the president make of the new testing?

KENNEDY: I think the president is open and has continued talks with North Korea. But I don't think we're afraid to put in new sanctions if necessary. At the end of the day, the president wants a denuclearized peninsula, and we're looking at all means to do that. But, you know, I think we have had a lot of successes so far.

INSKEEP: But I want to...

KENNEDY: We've gotten Americans...

INSKEEP: But I want to clarify this if - I want to clarify what the president makes of this testing. He had some comments, I believe, yesterday to the effect of, these are early reports. I'll be very disturbed if it's true, but they're early reports. Have you learned enough to know that this is a serious move by North Korea that is a serious slap in the face to the United States?

KENNEDY: I think the president is still evaluating what's going on, and I think we're still continuing the negotiations as we have been. And we're still looking to denuclearize the peninsula through peaceful negotiation.

INSKEEP: As you know, the president said last year in a tweet that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat. Would you say now that North Korea is a nuclear threat?

KENNEDY: They haven't conducted nuclear missile tests in over 400 days, and they've been cooperating with us. They've signed on in Singapore to denuclearize. And so we look forward to continuing that process.

INSKEEP: You view them still as cooperating, even though the summit went south and even though this reconstruction has begun.

KENNEDY: I would say that just 'cause there wasn't a permanent solution that came out of the summit doesn't mean that negotiations have failed.

INSKEEP: OK. Mr. Kennedy, thanks for the time - really appreciate it.

KENNEDY: Thank you for having me on.

INSKEEP: Adam Kennedy is deputy White House communications director and deputy assistant to the president. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has been listening along with us. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What strikes you there?

LIASSON: What strikes me there is that when the White House talks about the border, there really are two different debates going on. There's one - is this a crisis or not? - that's kind of a semantic debate. But then there's the actual debate that's going on in Congress right now, which is, should the president be able to declare this as a national emergency and, without Congress's permission, use certain monies, unobligated Pentagon funds to back a wall that Congress just voted not to allow him to do? That's really the question here.

And as Adam Kennedy just said, this is a legalistic situation. There are no easy solutions. There's no evidence that building a wall would stop asylum seekers from turning themselves in at the border.

INSKEEP: Oh, which is the thing that people are doing, whether they're doing it at legal border crossings or by walking through the...


INSKEEP: ...Desert. Now, you mentioned the question of the president's emergency powers. Lindsey Graham supported the president, said on All Things Considered this week that he believes the president has the power to do this. We had a lawmaker on this program say that the president does have the power to do this, but that he shouldn't. Is Congress going to get serious about the amount of power they have delegated to the president over many decades?

LIASSON: That is an excellent question. You know, a lot of people talk about executive overreach. I think this is an example of congressional under-reach. Congress wrote this law, and they wrote it in a way that allows the president, pretty much, to define what a national emergency is.

If Congress doesn't want him to do this, they need to amend the national emergency law to describe exactly what criteria should be used to define an emergency. Yes, Congress has given away a lot of its power over the years. It's a lot easier to leave things to the executive than to do the hard work of lawmaking.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks for your insights.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.