Transcript: Ken Cuccinelli on "Face the Nation," July 7, 2019

Full interview: Ken Cuccinelli on "Face the Nation"

The following is a transcript of the interview with Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, that aired Sunday, July 7, 2019, on "Face the Nation."  


MARGARET BRENNAN: Good morning. Welcome to "Face the Nation." We begin today with the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli. His agency is part of Homeland Security and it manages the processing of applications for refugees, those claiming asylum or seeking citizenship. Thank you for being here. 

U.S. CITIZENSHIP AND IMMIGRATION SERVICES ACTING DIRECTOR KEN CUCCINELLI: My pleasure. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: President Trump said he was going to delay the roundup of migrants for two weeks until Congress overhauled asylum laws. 

CUCCINELLI: Right. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: It's been two weeks. This has not happened. 

CUCCINELLI: It hasn't.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So what is the administration going to do? 

CUCCINELLI: Well, essentially at this point it's been put in Matt Albence's hand, the acting director it- at ICE. He's a career ICE officer, came up through the ranks and they're ready to just perform their mission which is to go and find and- and detain and then deport the appoximately one million people who have final removal orders. They've been all the way through the due process and have final removal orders. Who among those will be targeted for this particular effort, or- or not,  is really just information kept within ICE at this point.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So there had been reports that this would be just in the thousands. You're saying the roundups will be far larger scale.

CUCCINELLI: No, no I'm just pointing out that the pool of those with final removal orders--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Gotcha. 

CUCCINELLI: --is enormous. And, it- you know it's- it's important to note, here we are talking about ICE doing its job as if it's special. And really this should be going on on a rolling basis for ICE and they've been interfered with effectively and held up by the politics of Washington to a certain extent and--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well the Trump Administration has--

CUCCINELLI: --and they're looking forward to just getting back to doing their job. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, the Trump administration has deported far fewer people than the Obama administration had--

CUCCINELLI: Thus far. Thus far, that's right. Well, and of course ICE has been, for much of the Trump Administration, has been swamped with- they're the second stage of the border crisis. We focus so much on the Border Patrol. But the reason you see overcrowding in those facilities is  because they can't be moved to the facilities where they were expected to go and those are ICE facilities because the ICE facilities themselves are over capacity. So we have- the whole pipeline is clogged and ICE is backing up the Border Patrol in the southwest border.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But back to the question of asylum. So Congress hasn't changed asylum laws--

CUCCINELLI: They have not touched it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you expect anything?

CUCCINELLI: You know, I just saw the House calendar put out, I think, by the Speaker's Office and was disappointed to see nothing on that calendar to address this subject before they all go on vacation in August. So- and they're--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Can you act--

CUCCINELLI: --some relatively-- 

MARGARET BRENNAN: --without Congress?

CUCCINELLI: Well, there are things we're doing. There are regulatory changes, but they take a long time and they're not the equivalent of a legal change by Congress. We really need Congress, for instance, to fix the trafficking loophole that allows children from the Northern Triangle, for instance, and other countries around the world, to not be repatriated quickly and returned to their families. We need help with the Flores fix. The Flores settlement, that even the Obama administration fought the judge in that case in 2015--

MARGARET BRENNAN: This puts a--

CUCCINELLI: --expanding it--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --20 day limit on being able to detain.

CUCCINELLI: Well, right. But it was for almost 20 years- it was understood that that was to deal with unaccompanied children. The judge, in 2015 opposed, by the Obama administration, expanded that to families. And that has tied our facilities up in knots. It's made it very difficult to manage that population, to keep the families together in detention while they go through the due process.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I understand you're new to the job, but you were just pointing out the Democratic controlled House hasn't acted on asylum laws. Why didn't the Trump administration do anything on this when Republicans were in control of two houses? Why--

CUCCINELLI: Oh, I think--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --why didn't President Trump and Leader McConnell do it?

CUCCINELLI: Yeah, I think the effort was being made and Congress wasn't responsive.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Leader McConnell wasn't able to get this-- 

CUCCINELLI: Well-- 

MARGARET BRENNAN: --done?

CUCCINELLI: And right now you see the only effort arising out of Senator Graham working with Senator Durbin is the discussion I observe. I see it from the same perspective you do, meaning outside, to try to work on asylum loophole fixes. That's the only place we see any effort going on right now. And until we start fixing these loopholes and getting some changes in place it's going to be very difficult to avoid overcrowding to avoid the kind of conditions at the border that all of us would like to see dissipated.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Tell me about some of the regulatory changes you think you can make without Congressional approval. 

CUCCINELLI: Right. Well, there's some coming over the next few months like the  public charge rule. We're looking at what we can do in the Flores environment without- short of legislation to ease the pressure on our agencies. And I mean the three immigration agencies are my agency, USCIS, which handles asylum and- and refugees as you noted and of course ICE, Detention and Removal and Interior Enforcement and then the Border Patrol, CBP, doing what their name describes as border protection. So, all working together. And we also have some adjustments in the asylum space coming. We hope they're working on, but part of what we have to analyze is--

MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you mean?

CUCCINELLI: --does Congress have to do this and- and how much can we do? So those are things that I'm just diving in here in my first month as to determine how far we can go without Congress because until they're willing to act, we're not going to see a significant change.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And- and you are not. You have not been formally nominated and appointed by the president-- 

CUCCINELLI: Correct.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --and Congress has not confirmed you to this job. So how much authority-- 

CUCCINELLI: Correct. My appointment was principal deputy and I serve as acting director. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: How much authority do you think you have to make these changes? I mean it seems like and critics will certainly say you continue to try to bypass Congress to make changes in a way that is not how their oversight role is supposed to function.

CUCCINELLI:  Well, look. You're hearing from me, you're hearing from the acting secretary, you've heard from the president, we want to see Congress act. It's a Congressional solution that's going to be required for long term, lasting change that doesn't get tied up in courts in a way that every regulation does. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: And Republicans were very critical of the Obama Administration relying too often on executive authority. So when you talk about regulatory changes that will cause some concern. 

CUCCINELLI: Well, I would know. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Can you change the definition--   

CUCCINELLI: Well, let me give you one point. I did tell you- I emphasize that we're looking for what we can do within the law below the level of Congressional threshold- threshold. President Obama took actions that he himself acknowledged were illegal before he took them. I'll use DACA as an obvious example.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well on those regulatory changes, can you change the definition of who is allowed to immigrate and claim asylum? And how do you do that in a way that doesn't keep people who are legitimately fleeing violence--

CUCCINELLI: Right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --and persecution--

CUCCINELLI: Right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --from seeking safe haven?

CUCCINELLI: And it's important for people to realize that we continue to effectuate an asylum process that is intended to help people who are persecuted for political, religious, et cetera reasons. But that whole process is being swamped by fraudulent asylum claims from our border--

MARGARET BRENNAN: And the administration tried and failed to change that though, had tried to block those fleeing domestic-- 

CUCCINELLI: That's right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --violence, had tried to block those fleeing gang violence and the courts said "no." So--

CUCCINELLI: Well, the courts- the- the president has taken- attempted to undertake several actions including cutting off asylum between ports of entry for instance last November. That was enjoined by courts. That's being litigated. The- the level of judicial activism to stop this administration is historically unprecedented. We've never seen anything like it before.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, I want to get on to the border detention facilities. You don't have oversight of those in your current role but this IG report that came out this week just confirmed what we have been hearing from Homeland Security since back in March about the horrific conditions in many of these facilities. Overcrowding. Thousands more detainees in- being held for longer, including children, than they should have been. 

CUCCINELLI: Right. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you now have billions of dollars from Congress. When does this change?

CUCCINELLI: Well it's already changed. Most of the money in the supplemental, which is what I assume you're referencing, when to address children in this process. And in fact in over the course of the last month since that supplemental we've gone from about twenty five hundred children in facilities not designed for them down to a fraction of that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So those images that we saw this week that a government investigator released--

CUCCINELLI: Right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --is that still happening at U.S. facilities?

CUCCINELLI: That is not--

MARGARET BRENNAN: That overcrowding?

CUCCINELLI: --happening with respect to children in particular. We do have overcrowding in some places but that's a matter of the rush at the border and what the- what our system has been designed to absorb. And while the same people come down to the border from Congress and complain about it they don't actually go back to Washington and do anything to fix it. The only fix- fix that's happened recently was the supplemental money that most impacted the care for children. And of course they're everybody's priority.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to quickly ask you about the census but just to put a button on it, do you think you have the ability to change the definition of who can claim asylum in this country when it comes to national origin or setting quotas or doing some of the things that are in America's immigration past and have been viewed as not being humane and not upholding American values? 

CUCCINELLI: Well I think where you're targeting is statutory. We're not looking to- we can't change statutory definitions. We're trying to make the system work better. So to take asylum and credible fear, which is a- a clog point that my agency deals with, the first screen for credible fear is so low that 77 percent, approximately, of people are coming through that first screen of whom only 10 to 15 percent are actually found to have legitimate credible fear claims by immigration judges. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Because the majority of asylum cases are not--

CUCCINELLI: Correct. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: --confirmed reports. 

CUCCINELLI: And so that massive number, five times roughly, five times the number that are- are sick, four times the number that are actually getting the credible fear finding at the end of  the- are clogging the pipeline and that causes all sorts of problems in the facilities where you're seeing pictures from the IG report and others of- of overcrowding and so forth where the system is overwhelmed. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: But no quotas? No quotas on national origin? No redefinition of what persecution is? Well you know this quote know quote quotas on national origin.

CUCCINELLI: No. No, no, no. No. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Okay. And lastly on the census there- there seems to be consensus that you do need to know the number of people in the country, but when it comes to the question of citizenship which is where we've seen this back and forth--

CUCCINELLI: Right. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: --the Supreme Court saying the administration can't move forward with its legal justification at this time. The president says he still wants to. The concern here is that it could also cause, by including it, a skewing of the results inaccurate figures.

CUCCINELLI: Well, it's been collected--

MARGARET BRENNAN: By asking if someone's a citizen. 

CUCCINELLI: --it's been collected many, many times in the past and that concern has never arisen. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Not including this question since the 50s or 60s.

CUCCINELLI: It has been. The 1950s has- it's been included and it's also been included in the more detailed example. I don't know what the Commerce Department calls it that's- that is it doesn't count every single--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But, immigration officials like yourself will not see ultimately the details of the census in terms of immigration status?

CUCCINELLI: Answers of any person are not tied- it's aggregated data. So that's correct. This isn't--

MARGARET BRENNAN: The concern that this is being used for political purposes is why I'm asking you that question.  you that question.

CUCCINELLI: Right, well the- the census is intended to gather an awful lot of information the way it's used now. However, if your question is, "will my agency or other agencies see a person who says, 'no I'm not a citizen and their name and address and so forth,'" that's taken on an aggregated basis. That's not individualized data that comes to us.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, no. 

CUCINELLI: Correct. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you very much, Mr. Cuccinelli. 

CUCCINELLI: Good to be with you.