Zero Tolerance: Jeff Merkley Interview | FRONTLINE
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Zero Tolerance: Jeff Merkley Interview | FRONTLINE

>>So after the [Mitt] Romney loss, the GOP “autopsy” is commissioned. It’s very clear that Hispanics need to be brought under the RNC [Republican National Committee] umbrella. And so on the Republican side of Gang of Eight, there is energy; there is momentum to do a deal. … This is a moment where it appears that comprehensive immigration reform is on its way to happening. [Sen.] Jeff Sessions is somebody who has pretty strong views at the time about that particular bill. Do you remember [sort of] Sessions during this time period?>>Well, simply that he was a key factor in leading the opposition to the bill. You had a group of eight [senators], four Democrats and four Republicans, that had worked to put this together. It included Lindsey Graham, I believe John McCain. You had the sense that we have a real chance to fix our broken immigration system, the system that’s been badly broken since I was in college many decades ago. And it was going to take some guts to bring together a bipartisan vision, but we succeeded in doing it.>>… When you see the Trump campaign announcement and you hear the rhetoric about immigration, do you remember what you were thinking as you were watching that speech?>>You’re speaking of the campaign period now?>>Yeah.>>What I was struck by was the nominee, Trump, was searching for what kind of divisions he could really build a coalition around. So on one day, he’d be attacking women; on another, attacking Muslims; another, African Americans, Haitian Americans, Latino Americans, immigrants. And I think in the end, he became aware that attacking people outside of our country was a little easier than attacking people inside our country. So you started to see this greater shift towards attacking immigrants.>>… When Jeff Sessions offers his endorsement of candidate Trump, do you remember thinking these guys are pretty aligned on immigration?>>I remember being pretty, pretty stunned. To align oneself with somebody who basically is basing their campaign on division and bigotry and hate, that any senator would want to partner with that surprised me.>>Very quickly, we’re now post-election. They’ve won; they’re in office. [Steve] Bannon now is joining the White House. You’re pretty vocal about that move. Can you tell me what you felt the Bannon appointment signaled?>>Yes. By then, we fully understood that Breitbart was a voice for the “alternative right,” if you will, the far right, the white nationalists. They had horrific stories that dwelt on division and hate. And to see Bannon put in a position of chief strategist? This was stunning. And so I led a letter of my colleagues saying this is unacceptable; this is—I’m not sure if we used the word “un-American”; that this is not how to cultivate America coming together to solve problems and asking the president to kick Bannon out of that position.>>… There’s the travel ban that’s right out of the gate. There seems to be, you know, a focus on immigration very early on. There seems to be a cadence to just, you know, a flurry of EOs [executive orders]. What did that signal to you about sort of this group and what they were setting out to do?>>Well, the travel ban was really focused on Muslims, which meant you had a president who was focusing negative attention and attack on a religion, a religion that many Americans hold as their religion, another strategy to divide. And that was very disturbing. We saw Muslims in our society all across this country receive—be the recipients or victims of hate speech or acts of violence. And I thought it was important that when the president attacks a group in that manner that we respond by saying we stand with our fellow Americans, that this is unacceptable.>>Did the decision sound or seem to you like deterrence; that that was the—that that was sort of the political goal? It really wasn’t about—it really wasn’t about policy; it was sort of about kind of the shock and awe of a decision like that, which would have, like, immediate effects in airports across the country?>>I didn’t think about it as deterrence, if you mean deterring people from wanting to come to the U.S. I saw it as preying on an easy division, because Al Qaeda is primarily a Muslim organization. You could take our fight with a foreign group and bring it into bigotry against our own Muslim Americans. And I saw that as a terrible line to cross. It’d be like taking our war against Japan or Germany and taking that hatred towards German Americans or Japanese Americans, something we did have in our history but that we came to understand that was a mistake. And yet here we were engaging in that type of divisive strategy once again.>>It becomes a wedge issue, at least on the right. I mean, I think they very quickly realize that they can run on this, that they can run on fear, that this is a currency.>>… When I was first an intern for Sen. [Mark] Hatfield, I was assigned to come in early and open all the mail and distribute it between the legislative correspondents. And when I did so—so this was 1976, Bicentennial summer— I discovered that there was a tremendous amount of hatred just below the surface in my home state of Oregon that I had never seen expressed. There were just a lot of people writing in about different ethnic groups, about different nationalities, about different religions, saying, “We must take on this group because they’re destroying America from within.” And so I recognized that that still exists below the surface. And here’s Trump recognizing that and building a strategy around activating those high level of grievances and prejudices that most of the time are hidden, but are still there.>>Let me ask you about the “Dreamers,” because I know it’s something that you’ve— you’ve come to be involved in. There’s—there’s a [Jeff] Sessions announcement about, you know, pulling back, rescinding the DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] program. It’s around the time in which Sessions has lost a lot of influence because he’s now recused himself from— from the Russia investigation. Steve Bannon is pretty instrumental in telling Jeff Sessions: “You’ve got to stay to see through your work at Justice. You were put on this earth to be attorney general.” Is that a story you’ve—you’ve heard anything about, Sessions falling out of favor at the White House but still sort of really committing to seeing through some of these campaign promises on immigration?>>Well, we certainly saw so many cases where the president directly attacked his attorney general, publicly attacked him. That was—that was unprecedented, and yet Sessions didn’t resign. He offered to resign. So why was he staying there, and did the president want him to stay there while at the same time beating him up? And was it to do this work, this anti-immigrant work? That certainly would fit with what we’d come to learn about Sessions and about the president as a common point.>>The president has a meeting with Senate Dems— this is in early January—to talk about the Dreamers. This is the Dianne Feinstein meeting at the White House. It’s televised live on CNN. It’s like an hourlong broadcast, and everyone is sort of watching this and a bit shocked at the fact that it looks as though the president may do a deal on—on DACA. Do you remember watching that day?>>Oh, absolutely. You had the Tuesday Trump, and the Tuesday Trump was about: “I’m bringing everybody together from both houses and both parties. I’m the dealmaker. I can take the heat. You bring me a bipartisan proposal on Dreamers, and I will get it done.” Two days later, on Thursday, the bipartisan group of senators go back to the White House and say: “We have this bipartisan deal. Here it is.” And the president goes on a tirade and just absolutely blows up any vision of working together on a deal involving Dreamers. So it turns out the president, when he said he would take the heat, he couldn’t take the heat. It only took two days of criticism by Breitbart and probably internal criticism from Steve Miller and others to completely unseat him from the determination to get a deal done.>>Yeah, conservative media beats him up, of course. There’s hard-liners from the Senate that come over to bolster this sort of anti-immigration position. It’s kind of—it’s a pretty monumental moment of, you know, “Where is the president?” Who is sort of the last one to speak to him about this? And ultimately it seems like a win for certainly Stephen Miller.>>It’s an incredibly pivotal moment, because the president ran as a dealmaker, that he could bring people together; he could close the deal. And when he announced that Tuesday that he would be the dealmaker, that he would take the heat and he would get this done, there were enormous hopes. We had a bipartisan plan, so Ds and Rs had worked together to put it together. And he simply—almost all he had to do was say, “Yes, let’s put this on the floor, and I’m going to advocate for its passage.” That’s all it took. But his dealmaker vision was in kind of a war with his “I built my base by dividing America against Americans.” And it turns out his strategy of division and hate won out over his deal-making. …>>OK, so I’ve got to ask, “shithole countries.” When that statement gets leaked out—the president said this in that second Thursday meeting—what do you make of that? … It was part of the general impression that the president was fine with immigration from countries where people are white and not OK with immigration from countries where they are brown or black. And he made the comment somewhere around the same time about Norway and the acceptability of Norway. And I think it just showed how much racism is embedded in this conversation about immigration.>>… Let me jump to “zero tolerance” and family separation, Jeff Sessions’ speech on the border. You’re watching that speech. You have kind of a different idea after seeing that speech. Could you tell me a little bit about it?>>So it was a day or two after that, I was reading the speech, and I read it, and I wasn’t at all surprised by the language: “zero tolerance,” “tough on crime.” And when I read the details, I thought, it sounds like they’re actually going to traumatize children by taking them away from their parents. Surely that’s not what they’re doing. Nobody would feel like that was a good idea. And a member of my team said, “Well, there’s only one way to find out, and that’s go check it out.” And I said, “You’re right,” and arranged to go down the following Sunday to the border, and that’s when I discovered that very much they were engaged in ripping children out of their parents’ arms, separating them. When I walked into the … Customs and Border Patrol, CBP facility, and saw the warehouse with the 30-by-30-foot chain-link cages with boys in one and girls in another and men, and asked, “Were these children separated from their parents?” And the answer was, “Well, not all of them.” I said, “So some came across the border by themselves.” They said, “Yes.” But I said, “But the others were taken away from their parents?” They said, “Yes.” I said, “Where do you do that?” They said, “We bring in the family in that door, and we take them apart.” And the boys in the cage in front of me were being lined up by height to get a meal, and the tallest was only about this tall, just knee-high to a grasshopper, maybe 4 years old. And I just couldn’t believe that they were doing that to these kids. But they were.>>You initially can’t get in to see what you’re seeing.>>So this was the processing center, the CBP processing center, so I did get in there. And then I had heard from immigration advocates that up the road in Brownsville, [Texas], there was a Walmart where hundreds of boys were being stuffed into that Walmart, and maybe as many as 1,000, they said. Seemed impossible that that was the case. We had asked for permission to go to this facility called Casa Padre, and we’d been turned down. We’d asked for a waiver; we’d been turned down, because they had a two-week requirement for notice. And so we decided, well, let’s drive up there anyway. I was with my communications director, Ray Zaccaro. We said it’s a hot day, but let’s drive up there and knock on the door, because surely they have a facility there somebody can show me around. How hard could that be? And so we went to the facility, knocked on the door, and we did not get a warm reception. They had absolute rules about letting anybody in to see what was going on there. And I remember as I was speaking over Facebook Live, I was saying, “I’ve heard that there may be as many as 1,000 boys in this building,” and thinking I shouldn’t be saying that. There is no way 1,000 boys would be put into one place. And it turned out, when I went back on Father’s Day two weeks later and took a congressional delegation with me, that it wasn’t 1,000; it was one busload short of 1,500 boys stuffed into that facility without any of the sort of planning that should have gone into a place, a licensed care facility. This was more—you think of this more as a child prison.>>It sounds like you’re describing a camp.>>Well, it was a secure facility. It was 300 bedrooms constructed inside of this Walmart. They’d started in February. They said they had 300 boys, one per bedroom. They then went, I believe, to 500 in March and by June, just short of 1,500. So I asked the head of the nonprofit—his name is Sanchez— I asked him—he came to show us around because we had a congressional delegation— I asked him what were they short in expanding so quickly? And he said, “Well, we’re short child counselors,” and he conveyed that that was very important, the counselors were very important, which of course they are, because these are children who have gone through trauma in their home countries, trauma on the trip, trauma of child separation. They have been— they don’t know where their parents are, their siblings are. They don’t know what’s to become of them in this strange land where they don’t even speak the language. And I asked, “Well, how many counselors are you short?” He said: “Ninety. We’re 90 counselors short.” It showed that there had been no planning or thought to the welfare of the children. They seemed quite proud that they had a soccer field, but a soccer field serving 1,500 boys? It’s—it was really horrific.>>You have a pretty unique view. I mean, you’re seeing sort of these decisions being made here in the Beltway, and then, you know, you’re now on the ground in Texas, and the rollout of these policies seems, I assume, I mean, incredibly haphazard and really sort of just as much of— as messy as you can imagine.>>Well, and at the heart of this policy were two ways of addressing children. One was to block them at the border from ever setting foot into the U.S., a border blockade, and then if families made it into the U.S., to separate the children from the families. As I started looking into it, I learned that back in March of 2017, the head of Homeland Security, John Kelly, had publicly commented and said, “Yes, we are planning child separation, and it is designed as a deterrent.” In other words, we will inflict trauma on these kids, and that will discourage people from coming here. Hurting kids as a strategy, a political strategy, or hurting kids for any reason, is not acceptable under any moral code or religious tradition. And the fact that he was so up front in just weeks after the Trump administration had come into office was stunning. He proceeded to pursue this policy publicly only for a couple of months, and then in April 2017, it disappeared from view. Meanwhile, a pilot project was underway, hidden from public view. There were rumors, and when they were raised, the administration denied it was engaging in child separation. But when the inspector general went back to investigate, came to the conclusion that a lot of child separations occurred during that period, that we’d never know the real number because the records weren’t kept. …>>Let me ask you, because later you’re sort of seen really as so central around this issue. You get a memo that’s leaked. It shows kind of what we’re talking about right now, which is earlier plans to roll this out. It’s from a fellow named Gene Hamilton. Can you—the person who’s written the document is Gene Hamilton. Can you give me a little bit of a sense of what you uncover?>>Yes, this memo came from a whistleblower. It was dated, I believe, December 2017, and it was about the planning underway for several aspects of this strategy, including the planning for child separation and that that would be a deterrent, and the planning for family internment camps, which became a major goal of the administration in June of 2018. When the public became aware of child separation and responded powerfully and negatively, the administration said: “Well, let’s just lock the families up together indefinitely. So if it takes two years for adjudication, we’ll keep the children locked up in prison with their parents for years.” That strategy is another astounding moment. We had family internment camps in World War II. We know we made the wrong decision locking up Japanese families for years. For this administration to propose that we establish a vast system of internment camps for immigrant families is just a suggestion we’ve gone way off the rails.>>It seems like this was a coordinated government-wide effort to do this. I mean, you have certainly Gene Hamilton, who’s at DHS; you have Sessions at DOJ; you have Stephen Miller at the executive office. And—and this seems to be clearly a work of everyone focusing on this particular policy.>>Yes, absolutely. This was a strategy coordinated by the heads of many agencies and the inner circle in the White House. And what really stunned me is the new head of DHS, Kirstjen Nielsen. So she proceeds to just pretend that none of this is happening, despite what her predecessor, John Kelly, had said when he was DHS head, that this was about inflicting trauma on families and thereby discouraging immigration. So when she was asked, “Was this about discouraging immigration? Was this about deterrence?,” she just dismissed it. “Absolutely not.” She was insulted by the question. And she—one issue after another, she just would not honestly address it with Congress. And so this eventually led, because she was testifying under oath, I asked the FBI to investigate perjury, because she absolutely lied under oath time and time again.>>… Can I ask you about the caravan? So we just are going to go back a little bit before, but, you know, ahead of the midterms, the idea of the caravan, the story of the caravan. When you first hear of it, what do you make of this— of this strategy?>>Well, as I thought about why the administration took child separation from an underground strategy to a public strategy in May of 2018, I reached a conclusion it was really about the campaign; it was really about November, because it is traditional for Republicans to run on fear. And so they were searching for what would work. And they looked at ISIS, but ISIS had been no longer such a scary threat. They’d been torn out of most of their villages. They looked at whether or not Democrats would take your guns away, but they were in charge of all branches of government, so that didn’t seem like it would work. They looked at Ebola, but Ebola was no longer a big deal. And what was [left]? Immigration. So from that point, from May forward to November, this was about a national political wedge issue being driven in every way possible. And if you trace little details that were announced, there was something almost every single week to keep immigration in the news.>>… And the results? I mean, lessons learned by the Republicans when they lost the House?>>I believe that their preying on hate and bigotry created a negative reaction. And if we look at the races and how they came out, I think you see an alienation from suburban, particularly suburban, women voting against the president, that he was going too far. Maybe they supported him a little bit, but too far in inculcating hate and bigotry, too far in dividing Americans against each other, and absolutely too far in inflicting pain on children. Fifteen thousand children were locked up before Christmas of 2017—15,000. We had one camp in the desert with 2,800 kids, the largest child prison in U.S. history. Really unbelievable. And those images that were taken from above showing kids marched in single-file line with two counselors in front and two counselors behind in just military fashion, I think it alienated a lot of America.>>… And looking forward to see the legacy that these guys that we’ve been talking about have left on immigration, sort of the mess that is kind of left to sort of make our way through?>>Well, what we’re facing right now is when the president started talking about using a national emergency or sealing the border, it was a signal to everyone in Central America, if you have any dreams of coming to America, come now. So the president created a surge. And if you track that surge of people coming to the border and you show where he talked about emergency and where he talked about sealing the border, he absolutely unleashed this wave of folks coming to the border, which has overwhelmed our border facilities. But it’s also overwhelmed our border facilities because of the fact that the other end of the pipeline, with children being placed with sponsors, has been plugged up by the administration, which means so many children and so many families locked up in prison across this country. Here is the thing. The president had a theme, and the theme was if families were released pending adjudication of asylum, they will not reappear. But we had a case management program, and under that case management program, 99 percent of the families show up for their hearing. That’s an extraordinary number, and it’s virtually everybody shows up if you have a case manager. So what did the administration do? They shut down that program because they didn’t want Americans to know that the big lie was that people don’t show up for their—for their hearings. So we had a—this is frustrating in so many ways, because it meant we’re mistreating migrants by locking them up; it costs far more; and it’s part of a big lie that people won’t show up for their hearings if they’re treated with respect and decency and given a case manager until their adjudication.


  • FRONTLINE PBS | Official

    This interview was conducted with FRONTLINE during the making of our documentary “Zero Tolerance.” Watch the full film, here:

  • Oliver TV

    yeah 99% show up for their hearings… with a case manager… based on misleading numbers. reality – a few people show up at initial hearings where they are informed that there is no chance of them being deported and then promptly disappear before a deportation decision can be made

  • Dave

    Notice the huge difference from conservative commentators who use logic and rationale for policy while this leftist just smears.

  • blue diamond gem

    This guy is a sociopath socialist. His soulless eyes say everything. He is one of the chief propagandists in the Senate. His open-border advocacy and cultural Marxism go back years.

  • lorainefrancesv

    this is perverted! most of those kids are victims of child sextrafficking, it's sickening how the left avoids this reality.

  • Honorable Bunny

    The population in the sending country reacts to the cost/benefit calculation. Is it “worth it” to make the trip? Or better off to remain in their own country. The pull factor is undeniable, access to improved income, a community of expatriates to absorb them into enclaves, social opportunities a better hourly wage, access to better schools and higher education , medical care most of which might be offered free of charge. This is not rocket science. If moving to another state offers as dramatic an improvement in socioeconomic conditions we would all make the same choice. There are few options to discourage this opportunist migrations. Some might say it is cruel to use disincentives of any sort, but keep in mind, these people are spending tens of thousands of dollars to make dangerous journeys in the hope of getting a return on their investment. This gamble may leave them indebted to the traffickers for the rest of their days. Any blue collar American can explain that life in America is hard. Dollars earned often do not cover even the basics and education often does not guarantee a good paying job.

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