U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions joined me this morning to discuss the Administration’s policies at the border vis-a-vis children, whether unaccompanied or with a parent:
HH: I’m so pleased to welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions. General Sessions, welcome back.
JS: Good morning, Hugh.
HH: Let me begin. Is it absolutely necessary, General, to separate parents from children when they are detained or apprehended at the border?
JS: Yes. What’s happening is we are having more people coming bringing children with them entering between the ports of entry, between the ports of entry illegally, and they’re not, you cannot give them immunity. That’s an offense. We believe every person that enters the country illegally like that should be prosecuted. And you can’t be giving immunity to people who bring children with them recklessly and improperly and illegally. They should never do that. And so those children are being well taken care of. Within 72 hours, they’re taken to the Health and Human Services to be sure they’re properly cared for. And those persons will have, the adults will be prosecuted like the law requires.
HH: I understand the prosecution part. But is it necessary to separate the children? Could they not be detained in facilities where at least mothers and infants could remain together?
JS: Well, most are not infants. Most are teenagers, although we do have a number of younger ones now, more than we’ve seen recently. And they are maintained in a very safe environment not by the law enforcement team at Homeland Security, but put with Health and Human Services. And they are kept close by, and if the person pleads guilty, they would be deported promptly, and they can take their children with them. And, but we do, the Homeland Security can only keep these children for 72 hours before they go to Health and Human Services.
HH: But General, what I’m pressing on, because I’m disturbed by this. I don’t think children should be separated from biological parents at any age, but especially if they’re infants and toddlers. I think it’s traumatic and terribly difficult on the child. Is it absolutely necessary to do so? Can’t we have facilities where parents remain united with kids?
JS: Well, we can, we’d be glad to work at that, and actually, to keep them as close as possible, and then they’re deported. But the law requires us to keep children in a different facility than we do for adults. And every time somebody, Hugh, gets prosecuted in America for a crime, American citizens, and they go to jail, they’re separated from their children. We don’t want to do this at all. If people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them. We’ve got to get this message out. You’re not given immunity. You have to, you will be prosecuted if you bring, if you come illegally. And if you bring children, you’ll still be prosecuted.
HH: I understand the message.
JS: I’m saying the only thing we can do about this, and certainly, we prefer to keep the children close by. And if we have a prompt hearing, as we do in many cases, they go back home with their children.
HH: You know, I understand the deterrent, and I understand there are 2.7 million children in America with a parent who’s incarcerated and are separated. But if it’s possible to build detention facilities, because these people have not been adjudicated guilty, they’re under suspicion, could we not provide…I spent 17 years in Orange County working on children and families issues trying to keep people who fell into homelessness together with their children because of the impact on children, Mr. Attorney General. Surely, you’ll agree that’s a terrible thing for a child, isn’t it?
JS: Well, it is, but this is not like somebody getting ten years in jail. I mean, these are often within days. Now if they get into a prolonged asylum process, the children are then turned over to some sort of family that is to take care of them while the adult may be in trial. But basically, the adults are frequently getting bail, too, and be able to be with their children. So it’s not, it’s certainly not our goal to separate children, but I do think it’s clear, it’s legitimate to warn people who come to the country unlawfully bringing children with them that they can’t expect that they’ll always be kept together.
HH: I had the deputy secretary…
JS: We don’t have the capacity now to do it.
HH: All right, I had the deputy secretary of HHS on last week, and he explained to me how the 10,000 children in the care of the United States are cared for at more than 100-plus facilities. Have you, Mr. Attorney General, visited any of those facilities?
JS: I have not visited them. Those are within the ambit of the Homeland Security and the Health and Human Services. But I believe for the most part they’re well taken care of. They turn, but I’ve got to tell you, we have some problems like we don’t often know who it is that comes and picks them up. And sometimes, they’re illegally in the country also. Sometimes, we take them to places from the border to Denver, to Chicago, to Islip, New York. We transport them to the place they want to go. Many of the children are taken in that fashion. It’s really an amazing thing. We need to get this border under control. We need better, we’re going to see some new legislation through Congress, and we want to send a message to the world that if you want to come to America, make your application and wait your turn.
HH: Good message. Senator Merkley attempted to visit one of these facilities in Brownsville, Texas. He was not admitted. Should he have been admitted, Mr. Attorney General?
JS: You know, I don’t know about that. There are protections and privacy protections for children and families, but I’m just not aware of that.
HH: All right, there’s an organization…
JS: It would be under HHS’ control.
HH: There’s an organization called Kids in Need of Defense, www.supportKIND.org, and they are, they’re liberal activists, but they have a point that these children deserve representation, because many of them are eligible for asylum or refugee status. You’re the chief law enforcement officer. Are you guaranteeing that these 10,000 children have adequate access to legal counsel?
JS: I’m guaranteeing that they’re treated properly and lawfully. But so much of this is not valid, these claims. You just can’t decide you want to come to America regardless, and when you’re not, don’t meet the standards for asylum demand entry to the United States, demand that you appoint lawyers, and demand that you go through prolonged trials. About 20% of the unaccompanied children, come by themselves, that are stopped, are denied immediately. And 80, then the rest go through an asylum process, which is fair and just and takes time. And they get a hearing. And the judges are well aware that they’re young, and they treat them with the proper care and concern. And of the 80% who actually go through asylum processes, only 20% are successful. Most are denied, and many of them have no legitimate claim at all. They were just coming here because they’d like to make more money or for some economic reason.
HH: Now I understand there’s a spectrum on this set of children that we’re talking about, these 10,000 kids who are in custody, the 100,000 who are not in the custody of HHS, so 110,000 children. But among those, I think we’ll agree there are some who are obviously coming as just simple economic journeyers. Others are refugees and asylum. But don’t they all need counsel to be able to navigate our system? I don’t know that it’s a Constitutional right, but it seems to be a moral right.
JS: No, I don’t think it’s a moral right, Hugh. No, no. If you come to the country, you should come through, first, through the port of entry and make a claim of asylum if you think you have a legitimate asylum claim. You shouldn’t try to get across the border at some desert site, some remote site unlawfully and expect not to be promptly deported. We’ve caught, over the years, millions of people, and they’ve been promptly deported. They don’t get trial in federal court.
HH: But I am worried that a legitimate asylum seeker, refugee, would get to the country any way that they could, and that once here, language or barriers of age or maturity would prevent them from making the necessary application. And in this, I’m not, you know, I’m a conservative. I’m for the border fence. I’m for a double long sided border fence, and have been since before President Trump was for it. But I do care about these kids, and I’m worried about abuse and neglect in large-scale facilities, you know, beadle [Mr. Bumble], from Oliver Twist, if you remember the guy who ran that, and I’ve got Dickensian visions of these facilities. And no one I know has been there, including you. Aren’t you worried?
JS: Well, I believe we’ve got great people at Health and Human Services who are managing this. They stay under the Secretary of Homeland Security for only 72 hours maximum, and they’re then to be placed with Health and Human Services. And they, we have had some surges that have stressed HHS and DHS and how they handle the children, but for the most part, we’ve been able to transport them. Actually, what’s happening, when we say they’re in HHS custody, that means they’re in the custody of some, often, some family person who’s holding them as they’ve wanted to be held. They get, we take them as one witness at the committee said, to their destination city. And that may be Boston. It may be Chicago. We take them from the border to Boston at our expense so they can stay with somebody pending these claims of asylum. It’s really almost unbelievable how this works. So the wall, as you suggest, would really be a deterrent for that. We want people to file their application, not come unlawfully. And if they think their children are entitled to have, be here, then they get to come, then they should apply properly for asylum.
HH: Mr. Attorney General, are you a grandfather?
JS: Yes, I am.
HH: Can you imagine your grandchildren separated from your children for a period of 72 hours or even longer in a dormitory with up to, the deputy secretary told me, 1,000 other children and the impact on them of that?
JS: Hugh, you can’t, the United States can’t be a total guarantor that every parent who comes to the country unlawfully with a child is guaranteed that they won’t be, is guaranteed that they will be able to have their hand on that child the entire time. That’s just not the way it works.
HH: But we’re the United States of…
JS: But to be clear, in my opinion, I’ll agree with you this. I agree with you that I wish the system would allow for that. I wish we could afford to do that. And maybe we’ll head in that direction. I certainly think that would be preferable if we could do so. But the law says that parents who come unlawfully are subject to prosecution. And the law says we must carefully take care of any children that come, and they must be held not by the law enforcement branch, but held by our Health and Human Services branch to ensure they’re properly taken care of.
HH: Would you recommend to the President an executive order that says construct facilities that allow parents in detention to remain with their minor children, at least those who are under the age of 15 or 16, especially toddlers and infants, because we’re the United States of America. We can afford to build these sorts of facilities. And I, by the way, agree with zero tolerance for people who aren’t asylum seekers or refugees.
HH: But we can afford this, and it’s so inhuman to take children away from their parents.
JS: Well, it is a tough thing when children, always tough to separate children from their parents, of course. But it happens, sadly, every day when people go to jail in America.
HH: Well, I hope you can look at that, because I think it’s a killer issue as it is, because it resonates with parents and grandparents everywhere. Let me turn to F-1 visas. This is a second part of the immigration conversation. Newsweek reported in February, Mr. Attorney General, that the FBI director said, “Chinese intelligence operatives are littered across U.S. universities possibly to obtain information in fields like technology. Schools have little understanding of this major predicament. In fact, there are 274,000 F-1 visa holders from the People’s Republic of China.” This is a counterintelligence issue. What are we doing about it?
JS: I think it’s a very serious issue. Our universities have welcomed students from around the world. They’re very proud of that. But we are seeing exactly what you just mentioned. I have serious concern about people from other countries, and notably China, where they come here to go to our best universities, work their way into the most technically advanced departments, and often transmit information, some of it improperly and illegally, back to their home countries. It is a big problem. And this country cannot afford to spend billions and billions of dollars in the private sector to develop technologies and then have it stolen from us. And I think it’s, the President and I believe the FBI and others are far more focused on that in recent years since I’ve been here. It’s been raised up as a top priority of our national security division in the FBI.
HH: Of the 274,000 people here from the People’s Republic of China on F-1 visas, what percentage, do you think, pose counterintelligence risks?
JS: Well, I think it would be, you know, a smaller number, but even if it were 10%, you’re looking at huge numbers. I mean, this is a real problem. And I have no idea exactly what the percentage is, but I am certain that there are many people here that return back home to China and are milked for everything they learn. And many of them have obtained considerable information while they’re here.
HH: How do we keep track of them? Are we monitoring them on the campuses through undercover agents, informants? What are we doing?
JS: You can’t monitor 274,000 people. This is just a huge problem. And we’ve got to be more careful about who we admit first. Secondly, they should periodically have to report in as to what they are doing, and we could make sure then whether or not they should continue here. But what we know is people come as students, and the next thing you know, they’re working with a defense contractor or some other business in a way that provides intelligence for China or other countries. It’s a very big problem.
HH: Have you discussed…it is. Have you discussed with Secretary Pompeo or Director of National Intelligence Coats or CIA Director Haspel how we raise with the Chinese this problem, because if I were their intelligence agency, I’d be running as many of these kids as I could as agents.
JS: It’s been discussed, yes, at the highest levels of this government. I’ll just say it that way. And the FBI, which is part of the Department of Justice, the FBI is working with those agencies right now, and it’s a difficult thing. And we’ve got, we may even have to have some legislative changes. But the situation is not healthy. We need to take it seriously. We can’t stick our head in the sand. And I strongly believe there’s more that needs to be done.
HH: Let me close by talking about Masterpiece Cakeshop, if I can. How did you view that decision yesterday, Mr. Attorney General?
JS: Well, we were certainly pleased with the outcome. It was a 7-2 vote. It was more technical than we would like, but it still was a big victory. We filed a brief in support of the baker. So we were very happy, the Department of Justice was, with the result of that. We’ve got a florist case that’s coming along also, and that one will raise some similar issues. So it’s a big question, problem for people like this baker who basically can lose their whole business because they’re not able to freely exercise their religious beliefs. We believe the 1st Amendment, not believe, it’s in fact in the 1st Amendment that you have the right to exercise your religious beliefs, not just think it in a closet somewhere, and live those beliefs where possible. And we think that the Court’s outcome was correct. We’re very pleased with that.
HH: Justice Kennedy in dicta in the majority opinion wrote, “When it comes to weddings, it can be assumed that a member of the clergy who objects to gay marriage on moral and religious grounds could not be compelled to perform the ceremony without denial of his or her right to the free exercise of religion. This refusal would be well understood in our Constitutional order as an exercise of religion, and exercise that gay persons could recognize and accept without serious diminishment to their own dignity and worth. Yet if that exception were not confined, then a long list of persons who provide goods and services for marriages and weddings might refuse to do so for gay persons, thus resulting in a community-wide stigma inconsistent with the history and dynamics of civil rights law that ensure equal access to goods, services and public accommodations.” Now that, Mr. Attorney General, is a sweeping, I think, piece of dicta that says there’s a lot of free exercise room here for not only clergy to not perform weddings with which they don’t agree, but that protects the not for profit status, for example, of Christian colleges from a Bob Jones University-like attack from that 1983 case. Do you agree with my reading of that?
JS: Well, I think as usual, your Department of Justice experience served you well. I think yes, that’s essentially true. So what you’re got is public accommodation laws under the state of Colorado, in this case, and that public accommodation says if somebody comes in your business, you have to serve them. But it does not require you, we think, and the Supreme Court has held at least in this case, that you’re not required to provide a cake at somebody’s wedding that you don’t approve of because of your religious beliefs. I think, Hugh, that we’ve got really too much litigation in this country and too much people standing on rights. I mean, like surely somebody else will provide a cake for a wedding. Shouldn’t we all be a little more respectful of each other and allow people to exercise their religion even if we would not share that same view?
HH: I agree. And it came up, the tax exemption status came up in the oral argument in Masterpiece, and most people are worried about that. As I said, this wasn’t a hard case, but it was a dangerous one. The dangerous case is threatening tax exempt status because people believe in traditional marriage and intimacy being limited to a man and a woman inside of it. And I think Justice Kennedy was saying yes because of his comments about pastors not having to marry same sex couples. And again, you can’t make the law, I can’t make the law. I can just read what the Justice said. Do you agree that’s a fair reading of the implication of his statement?
JS: Perhaps. I have not personally studied that footnote, but it is a, the tax exempt status, is always a huge matter. And it’s a great, powerful weapon that the federal government can use, and ought to be careful about using it.
HH: I’ll go back and finish with the children where we began. Would you commit to me, Mr. Attorney General, to visit one of these facilities, because I know you, and I know that your heart will go out to these kids. And I just think this is a big blind spot for the administration.
JS: Well, I appreciate, really, your concern and other people’s concerns. But we are, the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Health and Human Services works hard at that. And we do that this, Flores is this decision, a 21 year old consent decree, that says that we can only hold children with their parents for 20 days, basically. We have a 20 day rule there that really needs to be changed. And maybe Congress only can do that. And we could use Congressional action to help us keep children together better, frankly. So yes, I think that this is an important issue. We want to do it right. We want to be sure children are treated right. But I continue to urge anybody who wants to enter this country, and want to claim asylum or break into the country illegally, do it, don’t come unlawfully. Come through the ports of entry and make your claim. That’s the proper way to do it.
HH: But if I could press you, will you go and visit one of these facilities?
JS: Well, we’ll look forward to that opportunity, but we are trying to get this law enforcement matter settled, and we’re trying to end the lawlessness at the border. The President promised the American people want it.
HH: I agree.
JS: And we have to prosecute people who enter unlawfully, and that’s taking a great deal of my time, you can be sure. And I will look into it. I’ll tell you that. I don’t know when I’ll be able to visit, but I will look into it based on this phone call. I sure will.
HH: And last question, will you go with Jeff Merkley or make it possible for Senator Merkley to get in?
JS: Well, Senator Merkley and I get along well…
JS: And I’ll be glad to talk to him about it.
JS: I’m not sure we can do my schedule in this fashion.
HH: Terrific. Attorney General Sessions, thanks for all the time this morning. You’ve been very generous.
JS: All right. Thank you.
End of interview.