The former border chief under President Barack Obama gave some measured criticisms Wednesday of President Donald Trump’s new appointee for the job, Mark Morgan, whom he had once hired and previously praised.
"I would say that I’m probably a little less than hopeful, and more worried than hopeful," Gil Kerlikowske told Greater Boston host Jim Braude on the upcoming tenure of Morgan, who will soon be the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Until this appointment, Morgan had been the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Kerlikowske had hired Morgan as Border Patrol chief in 2016, but Morgan only lasted in that position for six months before being asked to resign by a newly inaugurated Trump. The Border Patrol's union, which had endorsed Trump as president, did not approve of Morgan's immigration policies.
Kerlikowske’s criticism of Morgan came from comments he's made during appearances on cable television shows. In January, Morgan told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that when he looked in the eyes of a minor at a migrant detention center, he saw a “soon-to-be MS-13 gang member.”
Kerlikowske called those remarks “an incredibly stupid statement to make.”
Kerlikowske also spoke about the deteriorating conditions at migrant detention centers, which have gained recent national attention in the wake of news stories about overcrowding and unsanitary settings.
“Clearly, the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection needs more resources,” he said. “All of Customs and Border Protection is designed, basically, to hold somebody less than 24 hours. When you start holding them for days and days, you’re going to have disease issues, you’re going to have health care issues.”
Kerlikowske said in response to a question from Braude that gridlock in Congress was probably a part of the problem, but added that he thought the Trump administration was also causing the chaos on purpose.
“I think that this administration from the beginning … when they instituted the travel ban — which was poorly thought out and even more poorly executed — to all of the threats of raids and ICE raids and deportation, is designed to have some type of chilling effect on the people from those three Central American countries coming to the United States,” he said.
He described that policy as a “total failure.”
Still, though, Kerlikowske said he did not think individual Border Patrol agents had malintent, saying that acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, whom he also had once promoted, “truly cares about this and he just needs support.”
The interview also touched on contrasts and similarities between the Trump and Obama administrations' track records on immigration.
“For the Trump administration to say that the Obama administration separated children is truly apples and oranges,” he said, clarifying that the previous administration only separated children and adults if the adult was a gang member or was going to be prosecuted. “We didn’t make it a routine to separate families.”
Fact-checkers have backed up this statement in the past when Trump has falsely claimed that his administration’s practice of separating migrant families was not new.
Kerlikowske also responded to a question about a 2015 lawsuit brought against the Obama administration for keeping migrants in “ice boxes,” or very cold rooms in detention centers, saying the inspector general had investigated the matter at the time.
“Those facilities are kept at about 78 degrees … but 78 degrees to these kids who have never been in air conditioning is pretty darn chilly,” he said.