STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Trump made a case last night that he is not against immigrants. He says he is against those who break the law.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: America proudly welcomes millions of lawful immigrants who enrich our society and contribute to our nation. But all Americans are hurt by uncontrolled illegal migration. It strains public resources and drives down jobs and wages. Among those hardest hit are African-Americans and Hispanic Americans.
INSKEEP: The president made that case from behind his desk in the Oval Office. It was a pose, before the cameras, that predecessors since Harry Truman have assumed. In this case, the president was demanding a border wall as his price for reopening parts of the government. Those listening to the speech included our next guest. He is Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. He is the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, which means he is the newly empowered chairman.
Mr. Chairman, good morning.
BENNIE THOMPSON: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Do you accept the President's contention there that illegal immigration is a drag on the country?
THOMPSON: Well, I think, first of all, you have to say that the president didn't give us anything new. We have a problem with immigration, but we can fix it. What we're dealing with now, though, is a manufactured problem created by some policies implemented by this administration that has actually put a greater strain on our system of immigration.
INSKEEP: Let me make sure I understand there. You say there's a real problem and a manufactured problem. Define the real problem, please.
THOMPSON: Well, the problem is we have about 13 million people in this country who are here, in one form or another, illegally - visa overstays or what have you. But this notion that those individuals are terrorists, those individuals are murderers, robbers - very few of them. Our experience and information lead us to believe that many of them are just hardworking people who are just trying to make a better life for themselves. Our system of immigration in this country needs fixing. And so what we're trying to say to the president is, you don't have to fan the flames of hysteria to fix an immigration system. You just need to do it. A wall won't fix an immigration system. Common sense, listening to the professionals who say technology and some other things is the way to go is how you begin the process of fixing an immigration system. So...
INSKEEP: Now, the president is correct, though, that there are people who cross the border illegally or who arrive seeking asylum. And as you know, there has been an increase recently in the number of unaccompanied minors and families coming to the border. And in his speech last night, the president argued that a border wall is not just better for citizens, in his view, it's also better for migrants if they're deterred from coming. Let's listen to some of that.
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TRUMP: This is a humanitarian crisis, a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul. Last month, 20,000 migrant children were illegally brought into the United States - a dramatic increase. These children are used as human pawns by vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs.
INSKEEP: Now, Mr. Chairman, this is something the Obama administration could have said. And in fact, they did say this is a very dangerous journey, it's hazardous for people, it would be better for many if they didn't come. Is the president right?
THOMPSON: Well, there's no question it's a hazardous journey. We wish people wouldn't do it, but they are doing it. So what we have to do is address that situation in a humanitarian way. Teargassing people who try to come, trying to direct them to areas hundreds of miles away from where they are - the right to seek asylum is guaranteed anyone who gets to our borders. So what we're trying to get the president understand is, sure, we have a broken system, but your zero-tolerance policy that was implemented without any policies and procedures has exacerbated the problem. So again, let me be very clear. Democrats want to work on a sound border security policy, but we absolutely resist the notion that all this is predicated on building a wall.
INSKEEP: Is homeland security at risk because of the shutdown? There are Coast Guard and other homeland security personnel who are not being paid even though they are working.
THOMPSON: Well, there's no real correlation between border security and this shutdown. The president has tried to manufacture and up the ante by this shutdown. We have some 800,000 employees. We have 450 airports in this country manned by TSA workers who may or may not get paid this Friday. That's not how you run an effective system of national security for those who travel. Our Coast Guard individuals, as you know, recently got paid because of a unique formula for handling the money. I'm not certain that they will be able to do it next time. Those men and women of TSA and the Coast Guard do a wonderful job.
INSKEEP: So is homeland security at greater risk because of that situation?
THOMPSON: Well, there's no question they're at risk because the morale of people working at airports - and they are some of the lowest-paid people in the system. And so now we are doing this to them. My comment is - Mr. President, put the people back to work so we can keep America safe.
INSKEEP: Mr. Chairman, thanks very much for the time. Really appreciated talking to you.
THOMPSON: Thank you for having me.
INSKEEP: Bennie Thompson of Mississippi chairs the House Homeland Security Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.