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Republican Sen. Ron Johnson Discusses Plan To Keep Migrant Families Together

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And let's go next to Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. He has introduced a bill that would keep migrant families together. Johnson is also chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, and he confirmed to us what we are hearing, what we have been reporting - that due to a lack of resources, the administration's zero tolerance policy has been suspended.

RON JOHNSON: We simply don't have the capacity. We have about 3,300 family unit beds. We're talking about thousands of people crossing the border on a monthly basis. And quite honestly, the president's executive order is going to be probably difficult to enforce, which means Congress has to step into the fray here and actually start solving some problems, which it's not very good doing.

KELLY: Are we back now to what's been called catch-and-release where people who cross over are stopped; they're arrested; they're processed, but then they're released pending an appearance in court?

JOHNSON: Well, if we can't hold them and their children together, which we can't, that pretty well forces the administration's hands as it forced the Obama administration's hands as well. But unfortunately what we didn't do in the last administration is build up the capacity where we can actually hold family units together in certified detention centers awaiting the hearing.

KELLY: If we are back at a policy of catch-and-release, what has been accomplished in these last couple of months plus since the zero tolerance policy was put into effect?

JOHNSON: Well, I hope public awareness. You know, we actually do have a model in terms of what works to discourage people from coming this country legally. It was under Michael Chertoff when we had a flood of Brazilians coming in, about 31,000 in the year 2005. And Michael Chertoff recognized that it was going to be...

KELLY: Michael Chertoff - the previous Homeland Security secretary.

JOHNSON: DHS secretary - so he recognized it as a problem, instituted Operation Hold 'Em - Texas Hold 'Em, and we apprehended people. We detained them, adjudicated their claim very quickly and returned them to Brazil the next year. I think about 1,400 Brazilians came. Within three years, it was under a thousand. So that proves that if you literally apprehend and then return people that don't have valid asylum claims, it discourages others to come into this country legally.

That's not been what we've been doing since 2012. We've been encouraging it, and there's a number of laws and legal precedents that create those incentives. We need end those incentives. The goal of our policy should be to reduce the flow of people taking a very dangerous journey, young women getting sexually assaulted, people dying in the desert. That's not a humane way of treating people either.

KELLY: So let me turn you to what your plan would be. You have introduced a bill that would keep migrant families together. It would do so by keeping children with their parents in detention centers, possibly indefinitely. Why is that the way to go?

JOHNSON: Well, I wouldn't want to do it indefinitely. I mean, we would also increase the number of...

KELLY: But is there a time limit in your bill?

JOHNSON: The time limit would be a very rapid adjudication of their claims. So we would add another 225 immigration judges. Right now there's only about 74 at the border. We have total around 350 immigration judges. We would, you know, increase that dramatically, put them at the border where we can hear these claims very quickly. If they have valid asylum claims, they'd be able to stay in this country. There's actually no limit to people who can claim asylum. We ought to revisit that law as well. But the fact of the matter is about 22 percent actually have their claims granted. And so the rest would be subject to deportation. Because they're detained, we would actually be able to deport them.

KELLY: What do you say to critics who argue that it is inhumane to incarcerate children, to keep children incarcerated, whether they're with their families or not?

JOHNSON: Well, I think you really do need to question how humane it is to incentivize children to ride a train they call the beast. Again, what I have not done is put pictures of the dead, desiccated bodies that were shown to me by sheriffs down at the Texas border. There's nothing humane about that either. So this is I guess the least bad of many bad alternatives. It's certainly not humane to separate families and turn children over to one government department, a department that really doesn't communicate that well with another government department that is in charge of deportation. So it's a messy situation. It's been a mess for decades, and Congress has just failed to really solve the problem.

KELLY: And how does the bill that you're proposing square with the Flores settlement which, as you know, governs the detention of immigrant children and says children can't be detained, again, whether with their parents or not, for more than 20 days?

JOHNSON: We would have to overturn that and make sure they could be detained in a humane and certified detention facility.

KELLY: Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin and chair of the Homeland Security Committee - Senator, thanks very much for speaking with us.

JOHNSON: Have a good day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.