SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This week, the Department of Homeland Security released statistics of border apprehensions. There were more than 50,000 arrests in May - three times as many as this time last year. And much of the country is focused on the plight of children. There are almost 11,000 children in government custody. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions has advocated a policy of zero tolerance for families entering the country illegally, separating parents and children as a deterrent. Jeh Johnson is former secretary of Homeland Security under the Obama administration and joins us from our studios in New York. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for being with us.
JEH JOHNSON: Scott, thank you for having me.
SIMON: I was struck by a Fox News radio interview you gave this week. And you said, you disagree with the policy of separating children from their parents. But you also said - and I'll quote your words - "this could have been three years ago on my watch because the reality is while illegal migration is a fraction of what it used to be, the demographic has totally changed. It's no longer the single adult from Mexico. It's families." What do you mean by that?
JOHNSON: Scott, in my opinion, what's happening right now on the southern border, in terms of our border security, our border security enforcement and our federal criminal justice system, is contrary to who we are as Americans. I say that though on my watch we probably deported, repatriated or removed about 1 million people. We don't have open borders. The law requires that we enforce border security. However, the demographic has changed as you just noted. It's no longer the stereotypical single adult from Mexico. Illegal migration from the south is a fraction of what it used to be.
The high end was 18 years ago. It was 1.6 million apprehensions, but the demographic has changed. It's now women and children from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador desperate to leave the situations they are in. The poverty and the violence in those three countries is as bad as a war-torn nation. And so what I meant in the quote you read was that the pictures, the images that you see today of women and children could have existed and did exist as recently as three years ago on my watch. No matter what we did, however, I would not - could not - separate a child from his or her mother.
SIMON: So it's your position that children were not - certainly, not as a matter of policy, but in practice they were not separated from their parents under your watch?
JOHNSON: I can't say that it never happened. There may have been some exigent situation, some emergency. There may have been some doubt about whether the adult accompanying the child was in fact the parent of the child. I can't say it never happened but not as a matter of policy or practice. It's not something that I could ask our Border Patrol or our immigration enforcement personnel to do.
SIMON: Mr. Secretary, let me ask you about - some thinking that was advanced by Attorney General Sessions, in a way. Does keeping families together just wind up encouraging parents to take their children along on a risky border crossing, which would make them prey to gangs and criminals even if they're never arrested? Is that kind of thing a good parent does?
JOHNSON: You can send all sorts of deterrent messages, and we did. I know this for a fact myself, but the reality is that the situation in Central America is so bad that these people are desperate, whether they send their children on their own or whether they accompany them north. The answer to this is you're never going to fully address illegal migration unless you address the underlying causes of illegal migration, the powerful, push factors that motivate a mother or a father to send their child through Mexico to the United States in the first place. It must be a desperate situation when a mother is willing to part with her young child to see that the child has a better life in the United States. And unless we invest in the security and economic security of these countries, we're going to be dealing with this and we're going to be knocking our heads against a wall with this problem for quite a while.
SIMON: Jeh Johnson, former Secretary of Homeland Security, thanks so much for being with us, sir.
JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.