A Conversation With Kevin McAleenan

Monday, September 23, 2019
Erin Scott/Reuters
Kevin McAleenan

Acting Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security


Executive Vice President, Worldwide Government, Legal and Business Affairs, MacAndrews & Forbes Incorporated; Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations; Former Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor to President George W. Bush

Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan discusses the role of the Department of Homeland Security and the challenge of immigration in the United States.

TOWNSEND: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan. I’m Fran Townsend, CFR board member and the executive vice president of worldwide government, legal and business affairs and MacAndrews & Forbes, and I will be presiding over today’s discussion.

Welcome, please, the acting secretary.

MCALEENAN: Good afternoon. How’s everybody doing? I really appreciate the opportunity. Thank you, Fran, for the kind introduction. It’s really good to see you. And I also want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for the opportunity to be with you today and have an important discussion on the state of border security and immigration concerns nationally. But also hopefully Fran will have the opportunity to have a conversation and dialogue on some of the other Department of Homeland Security priorities, and of course with the members here.

I know that many of you have been following the crisis on our southwest border over the past year and tracking really the growing regional challenge of the regular migration in the region. And not only has the situation had obvious implications for our border security, but it’s led to really a significant humanitarian crisis, as well as a foreign policy challenge in the United States and throughout the region. And I’d like to take the dialogue today a little bit above the headlines and the daily news cycle and kind of look back at the challenges over the past, you know, ten months or so, and our efforts to address them, especially focused on the past three or four months during my tenure as acting secretary. I actually took the helm five and a half months ago, but we really started building momentum and progress on our strategy to combat this crisis in the last three or four.

For a CFR audience I don’t believe it’s too controversial to state that the development of a regional approach to migration is among one of the most pressing U.S. national security interests in the Western Hemisphere, and really one of the most fundamental challenges for the region, writ large, whether it’s the migration situation from Haiti to Brazil, and across the region a few years ago, the Venezuela crisis that’s ongoing, or closer to home the Central American migration flows toward the U.S. border.

With regard to that effort, we have been leading at the Department of Homeland Security, working with our partner government, to target both the push and pull factors that are driving irregular migration. But at the same time, we have to recognize that one of the biggest contributing factors to this crisis is the one we face here at home, and that’s the weaknesses in our immigration framework.

I was brought in as acting secretary really at the peak of this crisis. We were in the second of four months of over one hundred thousand arrivals at the U.S. border, and heading toward a peak month in May of 144,000 arrivals. We had—that means over—almost five thousand migrants daily, primarily families and children from Central America. And we lacked effective tools to counter the smugglers operating south of our borders in bringing these unprecedented flows, as well as the funding from Congress to promptly alleviate the humanitarian crisis. But we made some progress.

And today I’m pleased to report that daily arrivals are down 64 percent from our peak in May, and total enforcement actions for Central Americans arriving at the border have been reduced by over 70 percent. Critically as well, we have dramatically improved the conditions and care in our border facilities. And I’ll be able to talk more about that.

More broadly, as of next week we expect to have achieved another milestone. With some humanitarian medical exceptions, DHS will no longer be releasing family units from border patrol stations into the interior. This means that for family units, what’s been the largest demographic arriving at the U.S. border this year, the court-mandated practice of catch and release due to the inability of DHS to complete immigration proceedings with families detained together in custody will have been mitigated. This is a vital step in restoring the rule of law and integrity to our immigration system. And taken together I believe these improvements demonstrate significant progress.

But I do want to set the stage for a moment with where we were just a few months ago at the height of the crisis, the strategy and solutions that we’ve applied to begin addressing it, and why I believe continued efforts and partnership are needed to permanently resolve it. To give you a sense of the enormous scale of this crisis that we’ve been confronted with this year, again, in May we had over—it as the third of four months of over one hundred thousand arrivals. Ninety percent of whom were crossing the border illegally. In addition to that modern-day record of 144,000 in May, which was the highest in thirteen years in any single months, we had one day of over 5,800 arrivals at the U.S. border in a single twenty-four-hour period. In that—in that week, we had a group of 1,036 migrants cross en masse together and turn themselves into border patrol agents.

Of our record apprehensions that month, 72 percenter were unaccompanied children and family units, a stark change in the traditional demographics arriving at our border. And many of these migrants represented Central America’s most vulnerable populations, who put their lives in the hands of very violent criminal organizations to make the journey. With those overwhelming number of arrivals, DHS facilities at the border were overcrowded, resulting in some very difficult humanitarian conditions.

In some sectors, over 50 percent of our agents were redirected to processing and care of migrants, hospital runs, medical screenings, leaving key areas of the border undermanned and necessitating the closing of checkpoints. While we had warned Congress about the burgeoning crisis going back to December of last year, and requested both additional humanitarian resources and legislative changes, congressional action was not responsive and the crisis spiraled.

I do want to talk a moment about the fundamental causes for these shifts in migration patterns. The core of this issue in the region—and I’ve spent much of my time as acting secretary with Central American leaders, six trips to Central America since April, multiple meetings here in Washington. But at the core, the push factors of migration are predicated on a stark economic opportunity gap, exacerbated by poverty and now food insecurity, with continued high levels of violence in some areas of Central America. Job creation has simply not kept up with labor growth in Central America, resulting in a stark opportunity shortage, with only about one-fifth of the needed jobs being created each year for the number of young people entering the workforce in the Northern Triangle. This is the single most important push factor, from my perspective.

Poverty and food insecurity, as I mentioned, are also key contributors, and 64 percent of Hondurans live below the poverty line, for instance, with rural poverty being even more severe. And 63 percent of Central Americans cite lack of food as a primary incentive for migration, according to the U.N. World Food Program. On top of that, over the past decade transnational criminal organizations have used the Central American corridor for a range of illicit activities, including trafficking a significant percentage of cocaine bound for the United States through Central America. As a result, while the security situation is improving in all three countries, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, the murder rates are down 50 percent or more in each of the three countries, the region has experienced elevated rates of violence and general crime committed by drug traffickers, gangs, and other criminal groups. Combined, these factors have created conditions that push many to make the dangerous trek north.

I do want to be clear, though, that we believe that pull factors, however, are even more significant. And that’s borne out by the demographics of those who are coming to our border. The strength of the U.S. economy, first and foremost, with historically low levels of unemployment and the presence of significant diasporas of Guatemalans, Salvadorians, and Hondurans, with resources in the United States, are certainly strong magnets. But the main cause of the increases in arrivals this year is the weakness in the U.S. immigration system, the vulnerabilities of our legal framework which allowed migrants, especially families and unaccompanied children, to stay in the U.S. for months or years. Even so, the vast majority of them will not ultimately receive lawful status from an immigration judge.

And that’s why by the end of the fiscal year, which is just coming up in a few weeks—(laughs)—we will see the numbers more than triple the record for family units arriving at the border with close to 550,000 this year, and a record number of unaccompanied minors in fiscal year ’19. So just to be really clear on this point, in our estimation the central factor driving the migration crisis this year has been the inability to achieve results from the immigration process that can be effectuated at the border with these demographics at or near the time they arrive.

So in short, the crisis derives from multifaceted problems and clearly has called for a multipronged solution. And so stepping into the role and being able to really look across the immigration spectrum, it is a very complex set of processes with five different agencies and three different departments of government involved. We developed an aggressive and holistic strategy to mitigate the crisis within existing law. The strategy sought to change the dynamic at the border by first disrupting smuggling activity and reducing the unprecedented flow. Second, changing the way we process that flow to create greater integrity in the system to achieving immigration results that can be effectuated at the border without release into the United States. And third, at the same time, we sought to urgently mitigate the humanitarian situation by providing enhanced care for arriving migrants once they cross into the United States.

To reduce the flow, we realize first and foremost that international partnerships were going to be essential. If we couldn’t convince Congress to change the laws that allow us to maintain that integrity on the U.S. side of the border, we needed to work with regional partners more effectively. We needed to develop operational and strategic partnerships in the region based on a sense of shared responsibility for the migrant crisis. Principally, this has meant partnering with the government of Mexico to increase security of their border and prevent transnational criminal organizations from preying on migrants transiting north and to reduce the flow. Second, it has meant building relationships and capacity with law enforcement, immigration, and diplomatic authorities in the main source countries for migration to our border, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, to address the root causes of migration from security, economic, and governance perspectives.

In terms of the reduction in flow through interdiction and disruption, the single biggest factor has been the efforts of the government of Mexico. This has included the deployment of nearly twenty-five thousand troops under the new Mexican National Guard, focused on increased presence along the Chiapas-Guatemala border, stopping the conveyer belt of large groups to the U.S. border. We had a phenomenon of groups of over one hundred coming dramatic numbers. We had fifty groups of over one hundred. Forty-eight groups in May. And we only had six last month. So you can see dramatic progress from Mexico’s efforts. Disruption those key transportation hubs that were being exploited by smugglers, and, importantly, having consequences for those involved in the human smuggling cycle, arresting and prosecuting coyotes and those who were preying on vulnerable populations.

The increase in those human smuggling prosecutions has not just been confined to Mexico. There have actually now been, though our partnerships, through our intelligence, through our efforts with Central American partners, more arrests and prosecutions made of human smugglers initiated throughout the region in the last three months than any three-year period in the history. For example, the government of Honduras has arrested more human smugglers in the three months of this year than the total number of arrests in 2018.

Guatemala has greatly increased its police presence at its northern border with Mexico, and has adopted new techniques and technology to identify fraudulent documents and disrupt human smuggling networks. They’ve opened their door to the Department of Homeland Security and requested assistance in their efforts, both at and in between ports of entry. And we currently have over forty-five personnel supporting embedded with and supporting border security and counter-human smuggling operations in Guatemala.

El Salvador made the decision to deploy eight hundred police and three hundred immigrations to patrol blind spots along its border, primarily with Guatemala, La Hachadura, in the last several weeks as well. And in the last two months, Salvadorian police have made over five thousand arrests of nationally of gang members as part of their national security plan to address some of the push factors of migration.

In addition to these enforcement efforts, several countries have agreed to partner with the United States on regional asylum capacity building efforts, known as asylum cooperation agreements. Recognizing these countries’ decisions to join the comprehensive refugee response framework under the U.N. High Commission for refugees, known as or MIRPS in Latin America, and using best practices by international organizations and the United States, these agreements will enhance collaboration and build protection capacity. To that end, the United States will be supporting significantly the Guatemalan effort to build their asylum capacity, with tens of millions of dollars in funding to be supporting the UNHCR and Guatemala effort in-country.

I believe these international partnerships have paid great dividends already in ensuring effective immigration results in Central America and our southern border as well. Our partnerships are also having impact at our border not just in the region. Both with Mexico and all three Central American governments, we have initiated or expanded programs that are resulting in more effective immigration results for arrivals that do make it all the way to our border and can’t be deterred or protected closer to home.

Perhaps the most visible program resulting from our energized international efforts has been the Migration Protection Protocols—Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, which we established with Mexico earlier this fiscal year. I want to explain this program a little bit, because it’s not very well understood publicly. Under MPP, eligible migrants crossing illegally or presenting without documents at ports of entry, are processed for expedited court hearings and returned to Mexico. They are then allowed access through U.S. ports of entry on their hearing dates. They’re getting initial hearings in three to five months on average. An initial hearing for someone released into the U.S. could be two years in some jurisdictions, or five years, or more in some of the busier jurisdictions in major cities.

MPP enhances the integrity of the system by getting immigration court results at much faster pace than the non-detained docket in the United States while keeping families together and, without keeping them in custody. It’s expressly provided for in law, and conducted in partnership with Mexico, who has committed to providing appropriate humanitarian protections and work authorization while they wait during the adjudication process. Under MPP, we have successfully provided protections to hundreds of asylum seekers already, including those unique asylees to whom protection is provided immediately if it is deemed too dangerous from the result of fear screenings to return them to Mexico to wait for their hearings, as well as several who have gone through the entire process already. This just started in earnest in January with very small numbers. Where they’re already finished their claims and been granted asylum on the merits by an immigration judge.

Anybody have kids? I’ve got the back to school cold that I’m still working through here. So it’s, like, the perennial September fun.

But just to get back to MPP, very important. MPP serves as a tool to provide expeditious access and decisions for meritorious claims, but also to discourage those individuals with inadequate or false asylum claims who are really coming as economic migrants but told that they would be released in the United States. The key change has led to a safer and more orderly process along the southwest border and we are grateful for Mexico’s cooperation with us in this effort.

In addition to what’s happening with Mexico, DHS is expanding a new program called Electronic Nationality Verification to really streamline repatriations to Central America for those folks that do not have a claim of asylum or a fear of return to their country of origin. That allows us to basically verify nationality electronically instead of waiting for a consular interview. This program is an extension of our process in place with Mexico today but now has really rapidly increased with Central America.

In addition to these layers that we’re putting in place at the border, we’re also working to build capacity and, as I noted, extend asylum protections within partner countries in the region the ensure that those who need protections from persecution for political, religious, racial, or membership in a social group—the core grounds for asylum—they can seek those protections as close to home as possible, instead of putting themselves in the hands of dangerous smugglers and taking this dangerous journey to the U.S. border.

And as many of you have probably seen in the U.S. media, along with these efforts we are also implementing new regulations designed to limit asylum abuse and preserve our critical commitments under international law, promulgate stringent requirements for care and custody conditions for minors in federal holding. But we still believe that key legislative fixes are necessary for a durable and comprehensive solution to the crisis. I don’t want to—I do—I can’t underscore this enough, that we could not be in the position we are, with the 70 percent reduction in the flow of Central Americans, without these international partnerships. This renewed strategy of engagement, with support from the president and the White House, has been absolutely critical to changing this dynamic, to increasing a sense of shared responsibility in the region, and allowing us to make progress.

I do want to, though, you know, in the third are, highlight one more place where we’ve had great progress. And perhaps really the most fundamental when you look at the responsibilities of the federal government to those in our custody. And that has been in the area of our efforts to enhance care and conditions, alleviate overcrowding in border facilities, provide access to showers and toiletries, hot meals, and really critically, medical screening and care for young and unfortunately increasingly ill population that’s arriving at the border. And also to ensure sufficient transportation to manage this very complex process.

Since receiving the emergency supplemental funding requested on May 1st in late June, almost two months later, DHS has added over five thousand beds in temporary facilities, providing a more appropriate setting for families and children and eliminating overcrowding of single adults. HHS, our key partner in this cycle, has been able to add necessary capacity for unaccompanied children as well, which has resulted in dramatically reduced times in custody at the border. And we have ensured access to showers at all major stations within twenty-four to thirty-six hours and dramatically increased accessibility of hot meals and age-appropriate meals, another key recommendation of medical professionals, including the American Association of Pediatrics, who I sought advice for—from throughout the crisis.

And since January, DHS has increased the presence of certified medical professionals in border stations and ports from approximately twenty at the beginning, in December, to over two hundred today, ensuring all children arriving at the border are screened, a policy choice I made in late December after two tragic incidents are the border. And we’ve contracted for and purchased—actually bought—dozens of buses for large scale transportation between facilities. To give you a sense of how big an impact this has made, the combined flow reduction and this emergency supplemental, in the first week of June we had almost twenty thousand people in our custody at the border.

Now, these are police stations. These are not designed for long-term holding. They’re certainly not designed for families and children. 2,700 of those twenty thousand were unaccompanied children. Today we have 4,500 in custody, this month. And that number’s been fluctuation between 3,500 and 4,500. And those 2,700 kids, we have under 150 in custody. And they’re staying less than twenty-four hours. They’re being promptly transferred to better-equipped facilities of HHS. So we’ve made a dramatic impact, as we promised Congress we would, with the emergency funding, but also the initiatives we’ve undertaken with our international partners to address this crisis. So we got a much better situation at border stations.

More broadly, the efforts and actions we’ve taken in the past six months have been focused on breaking the crisis to protect vulnerable populations in the region and restore a sense of integrity to our immigration system for border arrivals. But we can’t let our progress, which is important, cloud our vision. We are still at crisis levels in illegal crossings at the southwest border. And until we change the fundamental laws governing our immigration system, we will not be solving the underlying problem.

Fifteen hundred to two thousand arrivals per day. We’re touting that as a dramatic success. And it is a significant reduction. But hundreds are dying on the journey. It can’t be an acceptable situation to any of us to say that that’s success. Not only in terms of the danger of the journey and the crossing for the migrants, but also the impact to our security missions. And really, for this group, I think in terms of the regional impact. Our neighbors in Guatemala and Honduras will send almost 2.5 percent of their populations to the U.S. border this year, an incalculable loss of energy and youth. And I think the leaders of all three countries are very concerned about this process. President Bukele has made it an explicit part of his platform to end forced migration to the U.S. in his first term—forced migration defined as being required to leave for either insecurity or lack of access to economic opportunity.

So in closing, I think it’s essential that we expand the dialogue and work on solutions together with policy experts, with Congress, with state and local partners who have been excessively burdened by this crisis, especially those along the border, and, of course, with our international partners and neighbors.

But I just want to note one last thing before we have the dialogue. I’m really privileged to work alongside the department’s extraordinary workforce. And I can tell you that this crisis has hit them really hard, both in terms of their efforts to care for vulnerable populations, but also the way those efforts have been perceived. I want to tell you that they’ve done an amazing job, with heart and compassion, in very trying circumstances. And they really do deserve our support and thanks. And, you know, I’m very proud of them.

So, going forward, I know that this audience understands that border security is national security. Migration crises cannot be addressed simply by any destination country working alone. We must create, and we are building, a shared set of responsibility and an effective capability on behalf of our regional partners to really make sustainable progress. So we need your ideas and your voices, your support and your criticism. And I really appreciate the opportunity to provide you an update today and look forward to the rest of our dialogue. Thank you. (Applause.)

TOWNSEND: Acting Secretary, thank you very much for your remarks. I think this is one of your highest priorities, but you have others. And hopefully we’ll get to those.

MCALEENAN: Certainly.

TOWNSEND: But let me start with sort of asking some questions based on your remarks. You mentioned that the catch and release is going to end. What does that mean for family units crossing the border and unaccompanied minors? What will happen with the end of—what are we going to see different with the end of catch and release?

MCALEENAN: Sure. So the main benefit will be this incentivization of the smuggling cycle, the, you know, confirmed release if you cross with a child, we’ll take that away. We won’t be encouraging people to come with a child, even if it’s not their own. And we have had five thousand-plus instances of fraudulent families presenting at the border so far this year that we’ve been investigating, several significant human trafficking and smuggling cases coming out of that work with HSI and the Border Patrol. But in terms of what happens to those arriving, there’s really two potential results. One, if there’s not an asylum claim made there’s a more streamlined repatriation, which we didn’t have the ability to do before without our Central American partners engaging with us. And second, for those that do have a claim of fear of their home country, they can wait in Mexico during adjudication of their case under the Migrant Protection Protocols.

TOWNSEND: So you mentioned several times the weaknesses in the immigration process. I’m not sure if people really appreciate, you own only one small, front-end piece of that. Why don’t—can you explain kind of what the—what the pieces are, and who’s the owner?

MCALEENAN: Sure. I mean, it’s interesting, I had a very engaging conversation with Doris Meissner, probably some of you know her, from the Migration Policy Institute. Former INS commissioner. Where she was talking about some of the challenges in the ’90s, and how she owned four-fifths of the immigration cycle, but the Department of Justice, you know, together had all—you know, the whole, all five parts. Well, now we’re in five different agencies and three departments of government. So I went from just the front end of the CBP to now having three of the components as acting secretary. But it makes those handoffs, joint planning, joint operations, joint budgeting just a lot more challenging, right? I mean, if we have unaccompanied children at the border, as we had the backup that I was alluding to, 2,700 kids waiting in border stations, that depended on HHS having the funding for additional beds. And so we had to go together to Congress to both request support in that emergency supplemental. And out of that four-point-five billion in the supplemental, three-point-six of it went to Health and Human Services simply for—three-point-four—simply for additional bed space for kids. So it’s that important to think about it as a system and continue on the cycle. And of course, the main cause that I alluded to was failing to get immigration results. And that requires adequate numbers of judges in the right places to handle the cases.

So we’ve done a lot of innovative things. We had some articles talking about tent courts. They’re not tents, but they are temporary down on the border right now, where we’re using VTCs to connect to existing immigration judges in their courtrooms but prioritizing those recent border arrivals so we have greater integrity and throughput in the process.

TOWNSEND: So immigration judges are controlled by the Justice Department.


TOWNSEND: That’s been part of the backlog, right, because there are insufficient numbers, as you say, of immigration judges. My understanding, I was actually quite surprised, is, one, immigration judges have unionized. Two, they can’t be asked to work weekends, or evening, or additional shifts. And they can’t be asked to go to—they can’t be required to go to those places where you need them most. Are we seeking legislative change, in the administration, to get that fixed?

MCALEENAN: Well, I’ll defer to the attorney general on the change in terms of the management of the immigration judges, but we have been working in partnership to both increase the numbers of judges, so that, you know, we’re giving them an accurate estimate of how many are going to be required for border arrivals, but also the ability to work remotely. That’s been critical, that we’ve created facilities at the border where now those judges can beam in by VTC and hear the cases of those arriving, those acute asylum cases. And unfortunately it will lengthen the time of those that are waited for their cases to be adjudicated who have been released into the United States. But hopefully we can get a handle on the challenge at the border, increase the integrity of the system, and reduce the flow, so we’re not constantly, you know, digging a deeper hole.

TOWNSEND: The attorney general has the authority to appoint immigration judges, and frankly could take presumably assistant U.S. attorneys in the region and have them temporarily assigned down there to adjudicate these cases, right?

MCALEENAN: Well, I know there are a lot of competing priorities and probably critical prosecutions to support, as you know more about DOJ than I do over your career. But we have tried to work in partnership. DHS provides a significant number of special assistant U.S. attorneys to support immigration and court proceedings in the—in the Article 3 courts as well. But it’s got to be a shared responsibility, and I think highlights your point about managing that continuum in the immigration system effectively, given the fact it’s in three departments.

TOWNSEND: Let me ask you, you talked about the criticality of working partnerships with the other countries, the sending countries in Central America. I’ll ask you the sort of more difficult question. The president recently cut aid to those countries. How do you build and strengthen that partnership while you’re also cutting aid?

MCALEENAN: Well, I think what the president has asked—and really, I think he’s been very clear about how he views the priorities in the relationship with our Central American partners in particular, is through the lens of collaboration on migration, first and foremost. And as we’re starting to see governments step forward, and we do have strong leadership commitment in the outgoing administration in Guatemala, the incoming president-elect Alex Giammattei, as well as President Hernandez in Honduras, and now the new administration of President Bukele, who’s really stepped up in his first three months with a whole series of initiatives—that that commitment is being demonstrated. And really, you know, in my meetings with ministers, which we’re doing every single month. We’re having engagements on how to deal with security and migration issues in the hemisphere. I’m seeing a real sense of ownership, of innovation, which is new, frankly, in the last year from the region.

So what we can do then is look at how do we restart aid programs that are working, that are supporting our interest, the administration’s interest? We’ve already done that in the law enforcement side. With Attorney General Barr we’ve gone back and DOJ and DHS programs have been turned back on. We now—the next step is to look at which of those aid programs are really helping on the economic side and helping to reduce migration. Which are the international narcotics and law enforcement bureau operations are really critical to the capacity building for governance and reducing crime and violence that are helping drive this in communities? I think that’s the process we’re undertaking right now. But this is not completely stalled.

You can look at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. They just announced major support for a new LNG project in El Salvador. And energy is really one of the critical issues driving economic challenges—it’s the price of energy for the textile, you know, concerns is dramatic. And that affects their competitiveness. Even though they have a great free trade agreement under CAFTA. So we’ve got some things moving forward, and it’s really about taking the next steps where we now have accountable partners, OK, what’s going to be working and supporting our joint interest?

TOWNSEND: So immigration’s a top priority, but you have others. Terrorism, countering terrorism, obviously, and election security. Let’s talk about election security for a moment. In 2018, there were temporary taskforces set up at DHS, FBI, NSA, and Cyber Command. They were then made permanent because FBI Director Chris Wray said, you know, 2018 was a dress rehearsal for 2020. Can you talk for a moment about why it’s a priority and what the department’s role is in sort of ensuring election security and integrity in 2020?

MCALEENAN: Sure. And you just outlined my three top priorities at DHS. (Laughs.) Obviously the border and immigration issues, but really counterterrorism and the emerging challenges with domestic terrorism, which we can talk about. But cyber and election security, no question. Those are my top three. I’ve got a tremendous deputy—acting deputy in Administrator Pekoske from TSA—Admiral Pekoske. True homeland security professional. He’s helping us cover all of the many responsibilities of the Department. Oh, we did have a hurricane here in between, with Dorian, that I think was a very great response by FEMA and partners.

But in terms of cyber and election security, I think Chris has accurately described it. We’re using the term that 2018 was a playoff game, you know, against, you know, maybe not the toughest opponent in the league. 2020 is going to be the Super Bowl. And we have to be ready. And there’s going to be more than one opponent, we’re concerned, on the field with us. So what we’ve done is just maintained the momentum. We never took our foot off the gas after 2018. In fact, we institutionalized those temporary frameworks and really built out the partnerships with states and local jurisdictions.

The threat, you know, to our democracy is fundamental. If we have a disruptive election or if we have foreign influence that changes perceptions of the American voting public. So we got to address both sides of that coin. With the states now, we’re engaged with all fifty states on their election infrastructure, their voter registration. And about 1,900 jurisdictions among the 8,800 that administration elections locally—constitutionally locally administered, state-administrated elections. So we have put out best practices globally—or, globally to the states and counties. We have had national tabletop exercises, which have had tremendous participation, and really run through real-world scenarios that we can expect. And, you know, we’ve worked with venders of the voting machines. We are really taking a comprehensive approach as the top priority for our cybersecurity and infrastructure security agency, run by Chris Krebs, who I know you saw in Aspen. But we’re going to continue to drive this through the year, in close partnership with the NSA, obviously looking at the cyber threats from foreign and, with the FBI, leaning on the foreign influence side as well.

TOWNSEND: So each of the departments and agencies, just like DHS, has got their own taskforce and strategy. You know, in the counterterrorism world there’s a national strategy and then each agency has a supporting strategy. Is there a national strategy focused on election security and integrity? Or is it just the individual agencies working together?

MCALEENAN: You know, it’s a good question. And we—in July, we had the opportunity as a team, the DNI, the FBI director, General Nakasone, myself, and Chris Krebs to go brief the House and Senate. Probably 70 percent of the Senate showed up for that briefing. And I think what emerged from that dialogue is that we do have a coherent strategy. We’ve met at the PC level on this as well. And everybody knows their roles. And there’s plenty of information sharing across the seams. You know, NSA and Cyber Command articulated a clear strategy on detecting and, ideally, deterring cyber attempts to impact our elections. The FBI talked extensively about their foreign influence efforts.

And really the DHS role is supporting the states and locals on building that resilience, as well as supporting the FBI on the resilience of the American voter to messaging. That we need—instead of trying to counter every potential element of foreign and disinformation it’s about having voters who are armed and understand they’re going to be bombarded with it, and how to get good information and make their own decisions. So I think it’s a coherent strategy among the three major players and, of course, the DNI has a dedicated national intelligence manager focused on cyber threats to the election writ large and communicating with all of our departments aggressively.

TOWNSEND: So one more before I open it up, just to touch on terrorism. You released a domestic terrorism and targeted violence strategy last week. Can you talk about that a little bit, and explain by what you mean by targeted violence?

MCALEENAN: Right. Yeah, so it was a significant step and statement for us to release an updated counterterrorism strategic framework at DHS. And we did do some new things in it. As you noted, Fran, what we—first of all, we linked—we explicitly rebalanced between our foreign counterterrorism responsibilities, which are operationally, you know, really the focus of DHS historically, the reason we were created. It’s also where our authorities—our direct impact authorities lie. But rebalancing that with a renewed focus on domestic terrorism and specifically and explicitly racially motivated violent extremism and white supremacist extremism. So that was an important statement.

But we also added this concept of targeted violence as something that the DHS equities can impact. And that’s—that was intentional, because we do see a significant number of increased attacks with significant lethality coming from actors that don’t necessarily have a clear ideological motivation or who are shopping for ideology. They’re on a path to violence, and they’re looking for some validation, justification out in the chat rooms and in the internet sphere to then apply. So for us, the capabilities we have through helping identify threats and vulnerabilities in public spaces across the board, in supporting with U.S. Secret Services’ National Threat Assessment Center, state and locals, and communities understand risk factors, because these actors are demonstrating concerns that somebody has noticed on a path to violence.

We want that to be shared with all potential intervention points along the way. So that these equities apply whether it’s an international terrorism motivation, whether it’s a domestic terrorism motivation, or simply a disaffected young individual who wants to take a violent act. We can help prepare a whole of community effort to try to find an offramp for that violence or be able to respond more effectively with the multitude of resources at the department that we’re already applying, but we want to do it in an integrated and galvanized way.

TOWNSEND: OK. One more, sorry. What role does gun control play in this, and why don’t we seem to be able to get even the enhanced background check legislation through?

MCALEENAN: Well, the administration has taken action to reduce the lethality of gun violence, with the bump stock legislation and very, you know, urgently after the Los Vegas shooting. I don’t want to get in front of the White House discussions with Capitol Hill on this issue, or the attorney general, who’s—you know, his department is working with the White House on specifically that question. But, you know, it’s definitely something we need to work through. But, you know, on the DHS side, we want to help prepare state and local jurisdictions, whether it’s first responders, mental health professionals, school resource officers, to be ready to prevent and respond regardless of the means, regardless of the motivation.

TOWNSEND: OK. At this time I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting’s on the record. Wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. Please stand, and then state your name and affiliation. Please limit yourself to one question, and keep it concise, to allow as many members as possible to speak.

Start in the front and I’ll work my way around.

Q: Thank you. Steve Charnovitz from George Washington University Law School.

Thanks for those remarks. You gave a very detailed, concise consideration of what you are doing within existing law. But you also said that key legislative fixes were necessary and that fundamental laws need to be changed. I’m wondering, can you outline what the administration would like to achieve by way of changed legislation in the United States? And you also mentioned the concept of asylum abuse. Are there changes needed in our international treaties protecting migrants?

MCALEENAN: Thank you for the question.

So, yes, I can give you hopefully more concise than my remarks a response on the legislative changes that we’re looking for, that would address the key drivers of this crisis. The first deals with how we are able to manage families at the border. We’ve now taken a regulatory step that would also achieve this aim, if it’s ultimately allowed to go forward by the federal courts. But the idea is to keep families together in an appropriate setting through an expedited and fair immigration proceeding. That’s what we did in 2014 under the Obama administration. Then-Secretary Jeh Johnson made the decision to establish family residential centers in the first major crisis of families and kids coming to our border. It worked very successfully.

We were able to adjudicate family asylum claims within forty to fifty days on average. And, you know, again, these are facilities with educational, recreational, medical, court, dining—you know, a campus-like setting that obviously isn’t ideal, but better than a situation where families are released and incentivized to come in large numbers. So that’s the first change we’ve asked for legislatively. That would be even more durable and consistent than just the regulatory efforts we’ve undertaken. So we still have that request outstanding to Congress.

The second is really a key one. It’s modifying the very important trafficking victims reauthorization protection act—the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, TVPRA, which establishes something we agree strongly with, high standards for care of children in custody, but it also has a double standard embedded in it. We are not empowered to repatriate unaccompanied children arriving from non-contiguous countries. So you can return a child to Mexico, working with the Mexican authorities, but you can’t do so for Central America. That’s something that the Central American governments don’t like. They want some say of what’s happening with their nationals who are minors, for one. And, two, it’s providing this incentive to put kids in the hands of smugglers at five thousand to ten thousand (dollars) per person to come to the border.

So we’d like—what we proposed to the Hill was to provide access to asylum protections for children in country or in a neighboring country. But in response, if a child did not meet those requirements and still came to the border, or avoided that process, we would be able to repatriate—to ensure that we have integrity in that cycle and can seek to protect children as close to home as possible. And then the third was to modify the initial asylum standard. So there’s two parts of the asylum consideration when an individual crosses. If they’re put into an expedited rule proceeding, they can claim fear of return.

And they’re assessed for whether they present a credible fear. Well, courts—and you probably know very well, sir—the courts have interpreted that as a possibility of proving an asylum case. And it’s a very low bar. We’re seeing 85-plus percent of migrants meeting that bar, whereas when they actually see an immigration judge we’re only seeing 10-13 percent be granted asylum by an immigration judge. So that gap just incentivizes people to come in, claim fear, and then they’re released into the U.S. awaiting a court proceeding, which could be five years in the future. So those are the three single changes we’re asking for in immigration law.

In terms of the broader regional commitment to asylum or our own international law commitments, I think what we’re articulating is a strategy that the best way to honor those commitments, and we see this happening in Europe as well, is supporting transit countries and source countries in building their own capacity to provide those protections. And that’s the kind of strategy with a shared responsibility we’re trying to take in the hemisphere.

Q: Thank you.

TOWNSEND: OK. Lady all the way in the back.

MCALEENAN: I don’t know if I achieve the concise objective, yeah.

TOWNSEND: Let me just say, one question, no statements. We’re going to get as many questions in as we can.

Q: Great. Thank you so much for speaking with us today. I—

TOWNSEND: Your name and affiliation.

Q: Yeah. Nicole Narea from Vox.

I just was wondering if you could elaborate a little bit on families just being detained, but no longer released in the interior of the U.S. What practically would that mean? Are they—what particular facilities are they going to be detained in? Would that require constructing facilities? And where would the funding for that come from? And also what might happen when border apprehensions go up in the fall when the weather gets cooler, as has happened historically?

MCALEENAN: OK. I’ll try to be concise and just build off my answer to Fran a moment ago on a similar question. First, just on your seasonal point, we have not seen flows to our border track the historical seasonal patterns built around the agricultural cycle. That’s not been the case in recent months. For instance, from July to August we’ve seen the numbers increase each of the past six years, but not last month. The, you know, traditional spring to summer cycle has not followed patterns either. So we’re kind of divorced from the historical seasonal cycle. And we see the flow responding more to anticipated success or failure than simple seasonal results.

But families—what we’re doing with Central American families now that’s ending the catch and release process is if they don’t have a fear claim they’re going to be repatriated in a streamlined fashion. Or, if they do have a fear claim, asked to wait under the Migrant Protection Protocols in Mexico. So they will not be currently held on the U.S. side of the border, even in the family residential centers, because we’re not able right now to complete an immigration proceeding while in the twenty-one days we have by court order. After the fullest regulations are finally adjudicated and put in place, that time will be alleviated, and that will be a third option for managing cases of families, being able to hold them together in an appropriate setting through an immigration proceeding.

Thank you.

TOWNSEND: Over here. Blue shirt. Yeah, blue shirt.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I’m George Salem with DLA Piper.

My question concerns a number of senior Gulf Arabs who are attempting to get into the United States, who are major investors in this country, many of whom have businesses here that employ Americans. We’re finding many of them now in administrative processing that can take ten months to two years, whereas they had previously received five year multiple-entry visas. Isn’t there a policy in place to give extra scrutiny to Arab businesspeople? And it seems that a number of them who need medical attention here are not getting visas in any kind of a humanitarian consideration. And I’m wondering if there’s a policy decision in that regard.

MCALEENAN: Yeah. I’m not aware of any policy decision that would have changed the processing. Good question for consular affairs, our partners over at Department of State. And will certainly convey that to them. Thank you.

TOWNSEND: Right here, up front.

Q: Jim Jones with Monarch Global Strategies.

MCALEENAN: Good to see you, Ambassador.

Q: Good to see you. I think you are doing a good job under the circumstances. I think everybody in all the leadership at DHS is in an acting position. I believe that it reduces your efficiency management, it further allows White House staff to be the controlling interest in policy at DHS. Do you see any movement to make these acting positions permanent?

MCALEENAN: Thanks for your question, Ambassador. I’ll just highlight a few that are not acting: our commandant, our director of CISA, our director of the Secret Service, our head of intelligence and analysis. So we have a number of our key leadership components that are in confirmed capacities. But it is something at DHS where we do have a number of actings. I guess if you count me and the deputy twice, which is maybe not fair because we’re both confirmed in our component head roles, you know, we do have a number of acting, especially on the immigration side of the department.

That said, what we do have is tremendous career professionals throughout. A number of these leaders I’ve known for almost two decades, coming up in the system alongside each other in the Department of Homeland Security. And we haven’t kind of missed a beat operationally. I do think it can impact us in our dialogue on the Hill sometimes to have that kind of vote of confidence, literally, from the Senate, and those engagements. But it’s something that we’re not worried about. We’re trying to solve problems and keep our forward momentum. And that’s certainly my charge and my goal. Thank you.

TOWNSEND: All the way in the back.

Q: Theresa Welsh. I’m a reporter with Devex.

I wanted to ask you a little bit more about the agreement you signed last week with El Salvador. And I noticed that the phrase “safe third country” was not used with respect to that agreement, as it was with the one that Guatemala signed earlier this summer. Could you tell us how those two agreements are different, and perhaps give us more details about the one signed with El Salvador last week? Thank you.

MCALEENAN: Sure. Well, the situations are very different in Guatemala and El Salvador. Guatemala has been the largest sending country to the U.S. border this year, almost 40 percent of the flow in some months. And about 80 percent of those arriving at our border have transited Guatemala. El Salvador’s in a very different position. About 10 percent of the arrivals are from El Salvador, and a very negligible percentage are actually transiting El Salvador to the U.S. border. So it’s a different structure and situation in terms of how we collaborate on asylum. Guatemala has a functioning asylum process. They are granting asylum. It’s nascent. It needs to be further developed. And I was pleased to reference the significant investment from the Department of State to support Guatemala in building their asylum capacity.

We see similar but at a smaller scale effort with El Salvador to support them in their own decision to join the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees MIRPS program in Latin America to build their own asylum commitments. We think that’s important. It could apply in the future to transiting partners—personnel from neighboring countries, for instance. But it’s really to show that this is a shared responsibility regionally; that there’s access to protections if you’re being persecuted, for the core conditions of asylum: political, racial, religious, membership in a social group considerations nearby. And so we want to meet each partner where they are, and each of these would be operationally very different in application.

So thank you for the question.

TOWNSEND: Yeah. Right back here. Yep.

Q: Hi. I’m Alex Toma. I’m a proud CFR term member.

I’m also a proud refugee. So this is very personal for me. I usually have a very eloquent, incisive question. But when I hear you using terms like “family units,” “catch and release,” “crisis,” “arrivals,” “demographics,” “conveyor belts,” those are people. So had my mom come here today, tried to come here today like she did thirty-five years ago with my sister and I, I don’t think I’d be here.

I want to know how you are challenging the assumptions upon which our entire immigration system is based. Are you challenging the assumptions? Maybe it’s not a crisis. Maybe it’s an opportunity. Are those conversations, those very basic conversations, happening?

MCALEENAN: So I think what we’re trying to do is make our immigration system work under existing law, but also recommend improvements that are responsive to the changes in patterns around the world. I do—I do recognize in a deeply personal way that those patterns are people, and what I’d like to say in response is that the U.S. is and will remain the most generous country in the world for refugees and asylum-seekers. The combined processing and access for both refugees and asylum-seekers in the United States is the highest in the world. It will be again this year. It will be next year. We’re also managing a lawful immigration system that hit a record last year with over seven hundred and fifty thousand naturalizations, one every forty-two seconds, for a new citizen. But we have to maintain that commitment. That’s a global leadership responsibility for the United States and for DHS. And I appreciate your heartfelt question.

TOWNSEND: Yeah. There was another one at that table.

Q: Hi. Thank you. I’m Clara Long. I’m the acting deputy Washington director for Human Rights Watch.

I was a bit concerned about your description of the Migrant Protection Protocols as something that maintains the integrity of the process when your own asylum officers have filed an amicus brief in federal court claiming that the program itself violates the U.S.’s non-refoulement obligations, when the over forty thousand people who are now waiting in Mexico for their hearings are less than 2 percent represented by attorneys. I’m interested in what you’re doing to investigate whether, in fact, the commitments that you referred to Mexico made in terms of humanitarian conditions, work visas, are actually providing safety for the migrants who are in this program, and whether you’re at all concerned that a 2 percent representation rate, you know, serious due process concerns raised by attorneys, raised by advocacy organizations in the actual court proceedings, you know, are something that raises concerns at DHS and what you’re doing to address that.

MCALEENAN: Thanks for the question. Well, I’ll give you a couple examples.

I’ll be meeting later today with the Mexican ambassador to the United States, something that we do pretty much biweekly, to talk about the progress of our partnership on a whole series of issues, but specifically also on the Migrant Protection Protocols. And we are constantly discussing ways to ensure the safety of migrants waiting in Mexico under this—under this program. We’ve offered financial support, which has been received by the government of Mexico. They’ve opened a new shelter in Juarez in the last three weeks. I’ve been down to El Paso talking with our partners that are on the NGO side that have very good connections on both sides of the border on how the situation is working, and we’re hearing positive things about the government of Mexico granting not only work authorization but temporary permits to be in Mexico, as well as social security numbers to access social services in Mexico while they’re waiting.

So this is a shared commitment of both governments. This is the approach Mexico agreed to with the United States. And so looking at ways that we can make sure that they have shelter, they’re—care while they’re waiting for their hearings, is very important to me and something I’m engaging the Mexicans on every week.

In terms of access to counsel, that’s a commitment of the program. I’d like to see those numbers increase. We are providing everyone in the protocols with a list of legal service providers as they are processed under MPP. We’d like to see those numbers increase, and we’re—and we’re talking to the government of Mexico about ways to ensure that access.

Thank you.

TOWNSEND: Yes, right here.

Q: Thank you so much for your remarks. I’m Danielle Dooley. I’m a pediatrician here in D.C. and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

And I was hoping you could speak a little bit about the decision not to provide the flu vaccine in the Customs and Border Patrol facilities. Flu season’s here. We’re providing it in my office. And you know, just out of concern for people coming through but also for your own staff having contact with people who may have a contagious illness. Thank you.

MCALEENAN: Sure. And not to go back to our layers of complexity in the immigration continuum, but I can maybe just quickly answer to give you a sense of how we’re looking at that problem.

First, we’re operating under interim medical screening procedures right now at the border that I put in place quickly after our tragedies last December of two children dying in custody for the first time in—anywhere in our processes for over ten years. And I immediately talked to Dr. Kraft that month about the challenges of what we could do better.

But under the guidance of our chief medical officer, in consultation with HHS and the Public Health Service team, we are looking at ways to adjust our screening for more permanent—interim permanent medical procedures. That’s due by the end of the year. And we are looking at the flu vaccine issue very specifically.

So just to be clear, when children are transferred to HHS they do get the vaccine. When families or adults are transferred to ICE, they do get the vaccine. And that time at the border is intended to be very short processing and then movement to a more appropriate setting for longer-term detention. We got away from that during the crisis last spring, and if we did that again we would certainly look at applying a more broad flu vaccine protocol. You might not be aware, but we did do that in South Texas, where we had significant numbers of people waiting in Border Patrol stations, and we also had a flu outbreak. So we did step up flu vaccines directly in border stations in an operational response in that case. But looking broadly across the border, we’ll evaluate it, but it doesn’t necessarily make sense to do it at that initial point, where there’s just a temporary processing and ideally quick movement to a more appropriate setting.

But I want to just ensure you that we’re looking at it very carefully. We want to preserve the health of the arriving migrant populations and prevent outbreak, not only of the flu but really communicable diseases that we are seeing—measles, mumps, chickenpox—in significant numbers of those arriving. Thank you.

TOWNSEND: Mr. Secretary, two quick questions—


TOWNSEND: —because we’re going to wrap up and let you get back to work.

MCALEENAN: Great. (Laughter.)

TOWNSEND: One, there is consideration of moving the Secret Service, which was moved from Treasury into DHS with the establishment of the department. I understand Secretary Mnuchin is looking to take them back. Where is that and what do you expect to happen?

MCALEENAN: Well, I understand his interest to be associated with some of the finest law enforcement professionals in the world. (Laughter.) I respect it. The Secret Service is—as five-and-a-half months as a protectee, my eyes have been opened even further to just how tremendous a group of people they are. And of course, this week they’ve got UNGA; they’ve got the election, you know, swinging into full flower; and of course, doing their regular missions at the same time. So it’s a tremendous agency.

There’s deep interaction both with Treasury on the financial investigations, on cyber, and of course across the homeland security enterprise with national security, special events. So I will be a huge supporter of them regardless of where they’re housed and funded in the federal government. But you know, you’re always looking for opportunities to tighten and align the best possible way.

TOWNSEND: Last question. When I was still in government we established the three-ounce liquid rule. I understand that there’s beta testing. I never thought it’d last this long. We put it in place, but it’s impossible—

MCALEENAN: Right. (Laughs.)

TOWNSEND: —to kill a regulation in Washington. So I understand that there’s testing of technology to be able to do away with the three-ounce rule. How far out do you see that?

MCALEENAN: That’s a great question. And I think some of the technological developments with computed tomography and AI algorithms to do some better automated assessment of substances—and I’m looking to apply that for countering opioids in the mail environment or express consignment as well, synthetic, you know, fentanyl and carfentanil. But I don’t think those are, you know, science fiction anymore.

I think we’re talking years in the cycle from development to application. We are expanding the use of high-end computed tomography machines at checkpoints for TSA in addition to what they have in the baggage environment. So more to come on that. I think we’ll hopefully be able to develop even better techniques in the coming months and years.

TOWNSEND: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for being with us and answering questions. (Applause.)

MCALEENAN: Thank you. Really appreciate it. (Applause.)


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