Telephonic Press Briefing with Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, Senior Official Performing the Duties of Acting Deputy Secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and Mark A. Morgan, Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection
June 29, 2020
Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Media Hub of the Americas in Miami, Florida. I would like to welcome our participants who have dialed in from the United States and across the region. This is an on-the-record conference call with Ken Cuccinelli, senior official, performing the duties of Acting Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and Mark Morgan, Acting Commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Senior Official Cuccinelli and Acting Commissioner Morgan will discuss President Trump’s “Hundred Miles of Wall” event that took place on June 23rd. Each will give brief remarks and then answer questions from participating journalists.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to Senior Official Cuccinelli.
Mr. Cuccinelli: Well, thank you, Kristina. This is Ken Cuccinelli, and I appreciate you all joining us for this discussion. I’m pleased to participate with CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan. I am going to start by talking to you about President Trump’s Executive Order a week ago today related to both what we refer to as immigrant and non-immigrant – non-immigrant people coming here covered by this order – would be coming to work on a temporary basis. And I’m going to touch on some visas and explain to you what that order does, but first I’d like to put it in its context.
We have skyrocketed from 3.5 percent unemployment in February to over 14 percent. It’s come down a little bit since then, down to 13-point-something, but by U.S. standards this is very high unemployment. The President took decisive action last week to accelerate our economic recovery, particularly as it relates to workers, U.S. workers. The Department of Homeland Security – not surprising – is proud to partner with them to put American workers first in getting back to work in this recovery.
So last Monday, President Trump used his authority under Section 212(f) of our Immigration and Nationality Act. This is the same authority he uses for other Executive Orders that you may have seen before. And in this order he has directed that the U.S. Government will temporarily pause foreign worker visas until the end of the calendar year – that’s December 31st, 2020.
Specifically, for those of you that know the visas, this covers H-1B visas, thought of as high-tech visas; H-2B visas, which cover a variety of seasonal applications, but exempt from those will be anybody working on food; J visas, which have 12 or 15 categories associated with them, many of which work; and then L visas, which are intracompany transfers as well. This is in addition to expanding the pause on those coming into the U.S. to get a green card, which the President in April had paused for 60 days. The grand total of working people that that will pause will be over 500,000, and the President’s expectation and hope for those slots is that American workers will be able to get back into the workforce more quickly with those 500,000-plus jobs still open.
At a time of double-digit unemployment, the President is seeking to ensure that Americans aren’t facing what domestically feels like unfair competition as our economy begins to safely reopen. You all have watched the news as we work our way through the learning process of how to work in an economy in the face of the coronavirus, and the President has been very aggressive in pushing us forward in that direction. We – I mentioned the unemployment rate, and we’re doing what we can at the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that Americans are getting back to work as quickly as possible, and our role in this executive order is to enforce the travel bars for those who have these particular visas that I have mentioned. You will note, for those of you that know this area, I did not mention H-2A visas. They are not affected by the President’s executive order, and the simple reason for that is that we want to be sure that there is no interference with the U.S. food supply. That’s also why in the H-2B category, those H-2B visa holders who would be coming in to work on food supply would also be exempt. That’s about 10 to 15 percent of those H-2Bs.
The President campaigned as an “America first” president, and that “first” means American workers, and he believes American citizens should be at the front of the line for American jobs. The consideration of immigrant workers is very different in 3.5 percent unemployment than it is in 13.5 percent unemployment, and we – the President views economic security as part of national security, and he and his entire administration are committed to ensuring that the job market here in the U.S. remains open, viable, and accessible for all U.S. citizens. And I would point you to the fact that the visas we’re talking about cover a wide range of skill sets. This is not one particular part of the workforce. But I would also note for you that if you can tolerate this level of statistics, if you go through the Department of Labor unemployment data, you will find large layoffs in all of the areas that these visas come in to work – all of them. And so that’s of particular concern to what the President would call people who are first out and last in to the U.S. economy. These tend to be poor Americans, perhaps they have less skills, and in a robust economy as we had at the beginning of 2020, they were doing well.
This President achieved the lowest Hispanic and African American unemployment rates in my lifetime, and I’m old enough that that’s actually a long time. And I would note that when you look at African American unemployment, that the President’s performance has been historic. We have spent more time under 8 percent African American unemployment under President Donald Trump than the entire rest of the lifetime of everyone on this phone call. That is incredible. He didn’t just reach the lowest African American unemployment, he held it there longer than all of his predecessors in the last 50 years or so combined. And I believe that goes all the way back to when that data is kept separately. So the President’s concern about people at the margins of our economy is very significant.
You all will recall at the beginning of the year and back into 2019, the President was justly proud of his accomplishment of getting more of the parts of the working American economy working than had previously been the case. And people in poorer communities, people in minority communities, were at the lowest levels of unemployment they had ever seen. And that’s all under President Trump, and he is determined to get us back there again, and there’s nobody better for achieving that. And through the executive action last Monday, President Trump is proving again that his administration won’t leave the American people behind, particularly American workers. And he’s made it abundantly clear that every American, regardless of race, gender, or age, is essential to our economic recovery, and that’s what motivated him to execute that Executive Order last week.
And with that, I will turn it over to my colleague and friend, Mark Morgan, and look forward to answering your questions.
Mr. Morgan: Deputy Secretary, thanks for that, and good afternoon, everybody. I think everyone on this call understands that the challenges and threats we face at our borders are vast, complex, and ever changing. The bottom line is we have to know who and what is coming across our borders if we’re going to effectively protect the health and safety of every citizen. And look, it’s a complicated set of challenges, but like Kristina said, what I want to do is focus on just a couple of areas, and the border wall system being one of those.
I think for some of you who were watching the news last week, we participated with an event in Yuma, Arizona, with the President of the United States where we celebrated the completion of more than 220 miles of the new border wall system across our southern border. The bottom line, with this tool, we made it more difficult for the cartels to continue their reign of human suffering, and we impacted their bank accounts, which is all that drives them – greed and power. That’s just absolutely a fact. With tools like the wall system, we are more effectively being able to change and shape the smugglers’ behavior. That provides the U.S. Border Patrol a great operational advantage to be able to stop and interject what’s coming across our border, and in fact tells us – and it’s facts – illegal activities decrease in areas where we have an effective wall as part of our multilayer strategy of infrastructure, technology, and personnel.
History shows it. It hasn’t been just during this administration, but in previous administrations when we had hundreds of miles of barriers being built in certain locations, everywhere where that happened, along with technology and personnel, we saw our ability to interdict and stop bad things and bad people from coming in.
In Yuma – again, we were there just last week – just one statistic. Last year, in the same area we had about 68,000 apprehensions at this Fiscal Year ’19. Thus far this year, we’ve had just over 6,500, and the wall was the critical part of that. And I remain confident – as I’ve been saying, just like I said last week, I’m absolutely confident that we will have 450 miles of new wall system completed by the end of 2020.
Now, I couldn’t not talk about what we’re all experiencing, and that’s the global pandemic, COVID-19. And during this global pandemic, individuals – I think it’s just common sense, right? Individuals that arrive at our borders pose potential public health risks to the American people – our frontline personnel, our health care workers, and our communities. The same goes for all countries. CDC here in America issued a public health order which has been a – it’s been a critically important tool in the fight against the public health crisis.
And let’s be clear, and I think this is an important statement: This order is not about immigration enforcement. Rather, it is about taking immediate and decisive actions that this President took to address the public health threat that continues today. This is not about – this is not about immigration enforcement; this is about public health. And rather than introduce illegal aliens into our facilities, increasing exposure to our workforce, our country, and the immigrants themselves – that’s the key element to this – CBP, instead, they’re returning approximately 95 percent of those that we’re encountering trying to illegally enter the country expeditiously to their country of last transit.
I’ve said this a few times and I think this is important to mention. Can you imagine if we were going through this global pandemic right now a year ago, when our Southwest border facilities were overwhelmed and overcrowded with families and children? At one point we had more than 20,000 in custody, and seeing daily averages in the thousands. Introducing a single COVID migrant into these conditions would be catastrophic. Now, think about it: 20,000 this time last year, and now we’re averaging about 150 to 200 people in our custody at any given time. And we’ve seen a reduction in unaccompanied minors by 70 percent.
It’s important to note that CBP as a whole, we were already better positioned to deal with the global pandemic because of the President and this administration’s network of immigration policies and initiatives that had been in place almost 10 months prior to COVID. These initiatives, as well as our partnerships with Mexico and other Central American countries, have already reduced the illegal immigration flow by 76 percent from the height back in May of 2019. And the driving force behind the crisis, families coming from the Northern Triangle area, have been reduced by 94 percent due to the end of catch-and-release. That’s all prior to COVID. And last month, 82 percent of our total enforcement encounters were immigrants from Mexico, while only 13 percent were form northern Central America. When you think about that, that’s a complete shift from what it was in May of ’19 when 16 percent were from Mexico and 72 percent were from northern Central America. And so there’s almost a complete 180-degree shift in who we’re actually seeing come across our borders.
And I think what’s important to note as well, even as CBP, we’ve shifted our resources to mitigate the spread of this deadly disease, we continue to do and handle other threats along our borders. We seized more than 500,000 pounds of drugs this fiscal year so far. That’s an increase from the same time last year, and after a small decrease in the beginning of the year because of COVID and the cartels were having to adjust their tactics – after a small decrease of drug seizures nationwide – nationwide actually rose sharply in May from the previous month – methamphetamine seizures alone jumped 66 percent. And last month on our southern border, CBP intercepted nearly 60,000 pounds of drugs up from approximately 41,000 in April.
And that’s why, as the Deputy Secretary said – I’m going to foot stomp – I think it’s worth doing that. This is why we say that border security is national security, why border security and economic security is also national security. It’s why borders matter, and importantly, it’s why the wall matters.
Now, lastly I’d like to wrap up with what we talk about every single time we talk about it, and that’s deterrence messaging. Look, we – we at CBP and DHS broadly, we continue to work with our Department of State partners to clearly communicate the many perils of the journey for people who are thinking about making this dangerous trip.
We talk about this all the time, but it just doesn’t seem to resonate in the countries where these people are trying to make this dangerous trek. The cartels – it’s clear, it’s uncontroverted – they continue to exploit those looking for a different life. They’re lying to them, they’re abusing them, and as I’ve said, countless times the cartels are treating them like nothing more than a commodity. The cartels trade human dignity and suffering for cash, and COVID-19 hasn’t stopped them at all. They just change their tactics, and we should all be united in our efforts to go after them. Now more than ever, migrants should be aware of the new health risks that COVID-19 presents and stay home, take care of themselves, take care of their families.
And I’ve said this before. Right now, it’s not just their life that they are risking, but the lives of everyone they come in contact with during their dangerous and illegal journey to the United States. And for those who do make it to our border, they will expeditiously be sent back and not allowed in the United States. In most cases, they’re being turned around and removed within a couple of hours. That’s the message we need to get out.
Now, look, as I wrap up, I know most of us remember the heart-wrenching photo of a man and his small daughter found drowned on the banks of the river near the Brownsville-Matamoros crossing. What wasn’t widely discussed was that same day, 55 miles to the west, Border Patrol agents found four more bodies along the Rio Grande. Three children, one toddler, and two infants died along with a 20-year old woman. So far in this fiscal year, agents have rescued more than 2,600 people along our Southwest border, many of them lost in the desert or drowning in the rivers, abandoned or left to fend for themselves in some of the most dangerous and unforgiving terrain there is. We should all be united to stop these tragedies, and we can.
With that, I’m going to end, and I thank you for your participation, and I’m looking forward to answering your questions.
Moderator: Thank you. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. For those asking questions, please state your name and affiliation, and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing. Our first question was submitted in advance. In fact, two questions from Publinews Guatemala that I’m going to combine into one. “How much has Guatemalan detention decreased in this semester compared to previous years? And how is the process of the asylum cooperation agreement with Guatemala going?”
Mr. Cuccinelli: Mark, if you want to take the first, I will gladly take the second.
Mr. Morgan: Yes, sir. So it has been significant – again, I’ll go back to my opening comments – on two fronts. One is the overall reduction prior to COVID. So we saw a reduction in individuals coming from several countries: Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala. All of that had been reduced overall by 76 percent, including Guatemala. So again, we saw a significant reduction pre-COVID. Since COVID, we’ve even seen a further reduction. Shortly after COVID, we saw about an additional 50 percent reduction on our overall numbers, again, with just a portion of that was from Guatemala as well as El Salvador and Honduras.
So we have seen a significant drop in those individuals that are illegally – trying to illegally enter the country, which then of course relates to fewer in custody. Again, right now, we only have 150 to 200 on any given day that are actually in our custody, so that would be just a handful of individuals from Guatemala. The majority of individuals that we encounter now, as I said, under Title 42 are being returned immediately either to Guatemala or to Mexico.
Mr. Cuccinelli: So with respect to the second part of the question – this is Ken Cuccinelli – the Guatemala asylum cooperation agreement was the first one that was effectuated between the United States and any of the Northern Triangle countries, and we were very happy to get that started in November of 2019, and it was proceeding in a very effective fashion up until COVID hit in mid-March. And it has been paused with Guatemala since March 16th due to the effects of COVID-19. We’re working with Guatemala to ensure that we can restart the program when it’s safe to do that.
The U.S. Government has worked very closely with our – with President Giammattei’s administration to ensure that we are ready to move forward with a phased implementation that isn’t going to overwhelm the Guatemalan asylum system. That’s obviously been very important to us as well. So on hold for now, planning for a restart when COVID calms down, but appreciate the partnership, which has had give-and-take on both sides to make the ACA effective as it was for four months before COVID hit. Thank you.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Carla Angola of EVTV Miami.
Question: Good morning for everybody. Thank you for this opportunity. This question is for both, if you can, Secretary Cuccinelli and Commissioner Morgan. The Venezuelan embassy in the United States reported that more than 60 percent of Venezuelans detained when entering the country for migratory cases were released. We know the position of this administration on the TPS, but it has always been thought that the TPS for Venezuelans, due to the danger they would face upon returning, could be approved. But that benefit is stagnant in Congress. Could President Trump approve that TPS through an Executive Order? Thank you so much.
Mr. Cuccinelli: So I’ll address this one, if I may. So TPS status in American law, the way the law reads is that the Executive Branch, the President, has sole authority over that. Unfortunately, the courts have intervened in the President’s attempt to manage TPS status for other countries. And until the Courts stop intervening, it is very unlikely that this administration will use the TPS process ever again because they don’t have control over it. Once they start it, the courts take control of it, and so the courts have effectively destroyed that tool as an instrument of foreign policy for the administration.
And as you have undoubtedly seen, we have engaged in efforts in the administration to wind down the other TPS arrangements that were in place when President Trump was sworn in and have created no new ones, and I do not anticipate any new ones coming online. Particularly – and this discussion is one that, certainly, I wouldn’t expect to continue with any prospect of moving forward until after COVID, regardless. Thank you for your question.
Question: Thank you so much.
Moderator: Here is another question, as moderator privilege. “Why do Mexican nationals now make up the largest portion of CBP enforcement encounters?” Commissioner Morgan.
Mr. Morgan: Deputy Secretary, if you don’t mind, I can take that one.
Moderator: Yes, please go ahead.
Mr. Morgan: Okay. So there’s two really main factors. One is pre-COVID, and then I’ll talk about after COVID. So pre-COVID, as I said in my opening statements, because this President and administration, the policies and immigration initiatives that we had, we were – 10 months prior to COVID, we were able to reduce the flow of those individuals coming from the Northern Triangle, mainly the families and children that were really driving this crisis. We were able to reduce that by 76 percent. And then what the cartels, what the smuggling organizations did – we took billions of dollars out of their bank accounts because of that. And so what they started to do in part was just shift their tactics. Instead of focusing and preying on the families and children form the Northern Triangle countries, they just started focusing on their own citizens. And the same factors that have been driving the majority of this crisis are still there, alive and well, and that being economics. So the cartels shifted their focus to the Mexican nationals.
So pre-COVID, we started to see a significant shift away from the Northern Triangle to the Mexican nationals to begin with. Now, since COVID, because we’ve seen countries taking their own COVID precautions and self-quarantine and making travel more difficult, that also led now to an increase in the percentage. The numbers of Mexican nationals coming across are slightly increasing if the percentages are going up, because the overall encounters are actually going down. But the same factors right now that we’re seeing is, right now, those that were coming from Mexico, when we’re talking to them and we’re interviewing them, they’re still coming for the same reasons they always have: for economic reasons. As we’re starting to see the impacts of COVID not only in this country, but Mexico and other countries, we’re seeing their economic situation being negatively impacted. That continues to drive more Mexican nationals now to try to illegally enter and come to the United States for economic reasons. That’s what we’re seeing right now. Thank you.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Jorge Agobian of Voice of America.
Question: Hello? Hi, Good morning.
Moderator: Go ahead.
Question: My name is Jorge Agobian; I’m with Voice of America, the Spanish service. My question is about, if you know, how many migrants who are waiting in Mexico under the MPP program have been continuing to wait in Mexico, and if we know how many have been accepted under the asylum law here in the U.S.? Thank you.
Mr. Cuccinelli: So I’ll take a cut at this and welcome the Commissioner to comment. MPP as we call it, the Migrant Protection Protocols, has been delayed because of COVID-19. Those cases are scheduled to start back up in July. We’re – that’s going to be a challenging logistical process, but the last count I was aware of we were around 50-plus thousand awaiting court cases in Mexico. It’s been one of the great partnerships with Mexico, our friends to the south, and we look forward to getting that process going again, even in the face, frankly, of COVID-19. This is not an ideal environment, but we are looking to try to keep those processes moving.
And pre-COVID, the Commissioner noted some other successes we had pre-COVID and MPP was one of them. These were moving along at a much faster rate in cases in the United States, including our detained docket. And so we look forward to getting back to that success and we hope to use as many creative tools and methods as we possibly can to get that process going again. And I don’t know if the Commissioner has anything he’d like to add to that.
Mr. Morgan: Yes, sir. And so the numbers, as the deputy commissioner [sic] mentioned, we’re continuing to work with the Department of State and of course with the Government of Mexico to continue to make sure we have strong fidelity on what those numbers are. But I think it’s important to note that the government shelters in the face of COVID have shut down. Many individuals have left shelters on their own, either go out on the economy, and others have actually chosen to return home as well. So exactly how many are on the other side in Mexico right now is definitely a moving target that we’re trying to continue to track what that level is.
What I would like to also add, to kind of foot-stomp, is again, what is driving this is a public health concern. Right now along the Southwest border, as I’m sure most of you are tracking, is we are seeing a significant increase in COVID-related cases, and that includes our workforce. CBP has seen a substantial increase in the number of cases among our personnel as well. And so when we talk about why we are delaying, it really is in the best public health interest of the migrants themselves, as well as our workforce, that we continue to delay this as we monitor the impacts of COVID and how it continues to spread. But I can assure you, we continue to work with the Government of Mexico, work with the Department of State, to prepare and see how we can effectively begin to open those areas back up to start addressing the backlog that currently exists, but we’ve got to balance that against the real public health risk.
Moderator: And we have time for one last question. That question goes to Lori Montenegro of Telemundo.
Question: Good morning, everyone, and thank you for doing the call. This is for Mr. Cuccinelli and also for Mr. Morgan, Commissioner Morgan. I wanted to ask you real quick just to follow up on something you just said: Do you have a number or could you give us later, those on the call – what is the number of CBP personnel that have contracted COVID-19? And also, for Mr. Cuccinelli, I wanted to see if you could follow up on something that you mentioned not on this call but a previous call regarding the Executive Order that the President signed. You talked about the very last piece was regarding work permits to be canceled for people, and I wanted to clarify – I never really got a clarification on it – were you referring to canceling of work permits for people who have deportation orders? Was that just related to those seeking asylum? Could you give me more clarity on what exactly you were referring to? What does the Executive Order cover? And thank you again for doing this.
Mr. Cuccinelli: Sure, so I’ll start and then I’ll let the Commissioner answer with respect to his frontline workforce that’s suffering from COVID. The Executive Order – I mentioned in my introduction on this call all of the temporary pauses of visas and green card entrants that the President included in his Executive Order. The Executive Order does do other things as well. It has ordered the Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security to make certain regulatory changes to the H-1B program, which is the high-tech visa program. It has also directed us to eliminate work permits, to the point of your question, for those with removal orders and those who are illegally present in the United States. On an annual basis, that amounts to about 50,000 work permits a year, and that will be done by regulation, and you can expect to start seeing that – it won’t be days or weeks, but you’ll see it in the next – I would measure it in weeks or months for that to be implemented. And that is part of last Monday’s Executive Order.
So thank you for your question, and if the Commissioner wants to address the CBP issue with COVID, I invite him to do so.
Mr. Morgan: Thank you, Deputy Secretary. Yes, so right now what we have is 499 active COVID-positive cases with over a thousand that are right now on self-quarantine, combined. So that 1,053 is those that are positive, the 499, plus the self-quarantined. And I think what’s important to mention there is, is it’s tracking really with the U.S. spread. So if you look at right now, the top three states for CBP are Texas, California, and Arizona. That’s tracking with the United States spread and kind of increase that’s going, and it wasn’t that long ago that when – while New York was the epicenter, that also was the height of the numbers that CBP was experiencing as well. Then the last thing I’ll say is I encourage everybody to go to cbp.gov, and that’s where all of these stats as far as positive cases and self-quarantine are contained.
Moderator: Thank you very much. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Senior Official Cuccinelli and Acting Commissioner Morgan for joining us, and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Miami Media Hub at MiamiHub@state.gov. Thank you and have a great day.
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