STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What does the law say about an idea that President Trump is promoting? In fact, what does reality say about that idea to drive migrants to so-called sanctuary cities and drop them off? The president has generated days of news coverage, including on this network, by promoting an idea that his administration previously rejected. He seized on this discarded idea after it surfaced in news reports and drove public conversation - though the president has not actually said he would do this. Press secretary Sarah Sanders gave her version of the idea's history on Fox News.
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SARAH SANDERS: This was raised at a staff level initially and pushed back on. The president wants us to explore it again, so that's being done. And they're doing a complete and thorough review.
INSKEEP: Jonathan Meyer is here. He was deputy general counsel in the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama.
Good morning. Thanks for coming by.
JONATHAN MEYER: Good morning.
INSKEEP: What did you think about when you heard of this idea?
MEYER: Well, it - it's - let's just say it's quite an unusual idea. It's not something that I've ever heard considered before. And it seems to be motivated, not by policy, but by other motivations.
INSKEEP: What do you mean?
MEYER: I think the president himself has indicated this appears to be a way to try and issue payback of some sort as opposed to a way to try to deal with the immigration situation.
INSKEEP: Well, let's work through this a little bit because The Washington Post, which first reported this, and others have noted that lawyers inside the Department of Homeland Security, which is something you once were - lawyers in the administration cast doubt on this idea when it was knocked around some time ago.
What would be legally wrong with loading people onto buses and taking them to Oakland or New Orleans or name your city?
MEYER: Well, of course, I haven't seen their analysis, but I know those lawyers very well. And they're very smart and good lawyers. There are a number of possibilities for why this would be illegal. What seems to be the most likely and likely what the Office of General Counsel relied on is fiscal law - that funds, as you know, are appropriated by Congress for a particular purpose. No funds have been appropriated for this purpose, and it does not appear that there are any funds that could be used for this purpose.
INSKEEP: OK. So this doesn't sound like something that would be legal to you - just on the surface, from what you know.
INSKEEP: Well, suppose you got past the legal questions or just ignored them. What would be practically wrong, if anything, about bussing people from El Paso or San Diego or wherever they might be picked up to Chicago or Erie County, Pa., or wherever else you want to take them?
MEYER: Well, there's several things wrong. First of all, it seems an unnecessary and unusually high expense to ship these people to those cities just because someone has decided that's how it should work. The way it tends to work these days is migrants who are going to be released are taken to transit centers, where they then make their way to wherever they wanted to go, typically to friends and family in the United States.
So if you spent all this time and money to send them to San Francisco or Chicago or wherever, as you say, they would probably then just turn around and try to go to wherever they were going anyway in the first place. So from a logistical and practical standpoint, it doesn't make a lot of sense.
INSKEEP: Wait. I want to make sure I understand this because the thing that makes this emotionally satisfying to people on a certain side of the immigration debate is that there are all these liberals in San Francisco who are demanding that asylum-seekers be treated nicely and now they're just going to be dumped with that problem. You're saying the asylum-seekers wouldn't all stay in San Francisco.
MEYER: Oh, I'm certain they would not all stay. I'm sure some would. But most who come across the border have a plan for where they want to go. And it is, you know, not necessarily where the administration would ship them under this plan.
INSKEEP: You know, I was noticing something else, also. I was on the website of the Center for Immigration Studies, which is, I think, would be widely agreed a conservative-leaning or right-leaning group that is skeptical of high levels of immigration and has been more fiercely criticized. And they put up a map of sanctuary jurisdictions. And it's remarkable. It's not just San Francisco and Oakland. It's not just Chicago.
There are sanctuary jurisdictions, where local authorities have said they don't want to be in the business of enforcing immigration law, all across the country. They're in Franklin County, Ohio, a presidential swing state; they're in Iowa City, Iowa, a presidential swing state; they are in Kansas and in red states. Wouldn't this idea, if it were turned into a practical plan, essentially spread migrants all across the country, including in more conservative places?
MEYER: It might well. I mean, part of the issue is there's no real definition for what a sanctuary city is. So those jurisdictions you just listed, each of them probably does something a little different with regard to migrants.
INSKEEP: Absolutely, absolutely.
MEYER: And I think it's fair to say that the predominance would be in so-called blue areas. But there's no doubt that there are plenty in red states and swing states.
INSKEEP: I want to ask another question about this because the president has said there's a crisis at the border. And there certainly are a lot of people heading toward the border and a lot of DHS personnel who are stressed. Yes or no question - does this idea of loading people on buses and taking them to Oakland increase the number of border enforcement agents?
MEYER: It probably does in the sense that it would require more resources all around just to transport these people.
INSKEEP: Oh, if you raised the money. But wouldn't it actually take border enforcement agents away because you have to escort them?
MEYER: Oh, it would take them from the border. Correct.
MEYER: It might involve more people generally. But it would probably take people away from the border, sure.
INSKEEP: Would it be a distraction from securing the border?
MEYER: I think it probably would.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that actual problem. If we define one of the problems at the border as - there are lots of asylum-seeking families right now and it's hard for immigration authorities to know what to do with them, what is a practical step that could address that problem?
MEYER: Oh. Well, that's a large policy question. I mean, look. I - certainly more resources to try to adjudicate these asylum claims could help; more resources being sent, of course, to these countries that are pushing them out, if you will, which is the real cause here, in all likelihood.
This administration appears to be wanting to take the aid away from those countries as sort of a punitive measure, but that seems to be backfiring. So more assistance down there to give people an incentive not to leave in the first place would help, too.
INSKEEP: Why would you need more resources to adjudicate? From a lawyer's point of view, what's the point of that with lots and lots of asylum-seekers?
MEYER: Because there's just so many and there's a huge backup these days, right? So with more people, you could adjudicate more quickly.
INSKEEP: Meaning more judges, more courts - and then you could follow the law, while also addressing the question of whether people are allowed into the United States or not.
INSKEEP: And why do you also add that matter of resources for Latin America, Central America?
MEYER: Well, one has to look for a reason for why there is such a spike right now. And it is generally believed that at least one of the main reasons is that conditions are so bad in the countries that these people are coming from. And one of the policies of the United States in the past years has been to try and assist those countries to improve conditions there, which then would push fewer people out towards the United States.
INSKEEP: Oh, this is aid that the president has said, in recent days, that he wants to cut off.
INSKEEP: Mr. Meyer, thanks so much for coming by. I really appreciate it.
MEYER: My pleasure.
INSKEEP: Jonathan Meyer is former deputy general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security. He served in the Obama administration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.