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Separation Of Families Sparks New Debate Over Immigration Policy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump says the United States should deport people trying to enter the country illegally without facing a judge or a court case. This, of course, comes days after his administration reversed its position on family separations, instead saying that they will detain migrant families together. The president has also told Republicans in Congress to stop trying to work out a comprehensive immigration bill until after the midterm elections. Immigration has stirred up Democratic opposition as well. A string of lawmakers have made their way to the U.S.-Mexico border to better understand what the immigration process is like for these families.

Senator Cory Booker is among them. He represents the state of New Jersey, but he is joining us this morning from McAllen, Texas. Senator, thanks for being here.

CORY BOOKER: Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: What have you been seeing in McAllen?

BOOKER: Well, I got in last night around midnight and went straight to the border and crossed into Mexico and then walked back with a few of my staff members to encounter Customs and Border Patrol in the field to see the process for legal immigration, where people come to this country seeking asylum escaping, you know, oppression and other challenges and what they would encounter. And there have been allegations made to me and others that Customs and Border Patrol are pushing people away and not even letting - allowing them to present themselves for asylum.

MARTIN: Did you see that?

BOOKER: I did. The Customs and Border Patrol officers readily admitted to me that that's what they do. They claimed it was based upon whether there was room in detention facilities for those families. But there are a lot of advocates who are saying that this is being done in many ways pushing people to try to cross through means which are not in accordance with the law and thereby trigger a different set of experiences. And that's problematic and something I'll explore more during my day today meeting with many officials down here.

MARTIN: Although, I mean, it is true that the U.S. has a backlog of people who are seeking asylum. And the Trump administration argues that this backlog has to be addressed before accepting new asylum applicants. Does that make sense to you?

BOOKER: It makes sense. But this goes back to I think some of the larger issues that we as a country are dealing with. And the president seems to - who has been the architect of this crisis with his separating families and many of the tactics he's taking on that violate our values. We are a planet right now where there's dozens of countries facing immigration challenges from Lebanon, where a quarter of their population right now is immigrants, to Canada.

And I just believe that in the United States of America, we should be setting an example of how this is done that is in accordance with our values and our ideals as a country. And there are a lot of things going on right now that to me are tantamount to moral vandalism that this administration is doing which are undermining our values and undermining who I think we should be, which is a light to other nations about how these processes should work.

MARTIN: We are ahead of the midterm election, so I need to ask you about the politics of this moment. Your colleague Senator Elizabeth Warren was at the border yesterday. You're there today. You are both on the short list of Democratic presidential candidates in 2020. Is immigration an issue that will animate Democratic voters in this moment?

BOOKER: You know, what's going on in our country right now with thousands of children being separated from their families is a kind of anguish and pain that people on both sides of the aisle are outraged and speaking out against. I think this is a moral moment. To put a political lens over it undermines - especially about an election that is not even the one in November but two years after that - really undermines what I think should be seen as a moral urgency for all Americans to be speaking up, to be taking extraordinary actions.

MARTIN: Let me ask you then, if I could - this has clearly, though, stirred emotions on both sides of the aisle. Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters is out there encouraging people to protest any member of the Trump administration over their zero tolerance immigration policy, protesting them in restaurants, banks, stores, wherever they go. Do you think that's a good strategy?

BOOKER: You know, protest is good, and I've been encouraging people there be a lot of protests at the Mall and cities all across America protesting this really - these morally despicable actions by the Trump administration separating folks from families. But this is also a time, I believe, as Americans who seek to create a beloved community, who believe in a more what I consider a radical love, love thy neighbor - no exceptions. And whether that person is coming over the border or whether that person is somebody who votes differently than you, we've got to be a nation that treats each other with our highest ideals.

We cannot descend into a kind of hatred that really undermines what I think is beautiful about this nation, hopeful about this nation. And so I think that's just civility. I remember hugging John McCain when he came back to the floor after a cancer diagnosis and getting pilloried by people in my own party for doing that. We've got to get our country back to a place where we respect each other, no matter what our beliefs are.

MARTIN: Senator Cory Booker, Democrat from New Jersey - thanks, Senator.

BOOKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.