FULL EPISODE: 3/21/21 Greta goes to the U.S.-Mexico border to cover the surge of undocumented immigrants

Updated: Mar. 20, 2021 at 10:43 PM EDT
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Washington, D.C. – Greta Van Susteren interviewed Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar, and Pastor Michael Smith, executive director of the Holding Institute Community Center in Laredo, Texas, for a special episode of Gray Television’s “Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren,” airing Sunday, March 21, 2021.

The show was partially shot and will be anchored from the border town of Laredo, Texas.

Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, whose district borders the Rio Grande, told Van Susteren he believed it was important for President Joe Biden to visit the area, and that the administration needed “to listen to the border communities because we’re bearing the brunt.” Cuellar also criticized the president for not allowing journalists into detention centers, saying: “They need to let you in. They need to tell the American public what’s going on.”

GOP Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma agreed that President Biden should visit the border, adding: “When he declared ‘let’s stop wall construction entirely’, he needs to see the consequences of that, the big gaps that are in the wall, the technology that’s never been installed.” Lankford blamed the administration’s policy changes for the influx of migrants at the border, saying the President had emboldened and sent a message to human smugglers that “now is the time to be able to do the things they haven’t, and things are changing.”

Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar, who is Rep. Cuellar’s brother, said that although the problem was significant he didn’t think a border wall was needed along the Rio Grande. “What you need here is technology, more personnel to be able to secure the border,” he said. Sheriff Cuellar blamed cartels for the influx of migrants, saying “Oh absolutely … That’s who’s doing it,” alleging human capital was more lucrative to smugglers than drugs.

Pastor Michael Smith of the Holding Institute, a non-profit community center in Laredo, Texas, told Van Susteren that 30 to 40 people a day are now seeking shelter at his facility, whereas 6 months ago, that number was five people a week. “Under the Trump administration, whether you liked his plan or not, it was a clear plan. It was clear-cut,” said Pastor Smith. “That’s why you had the fewer numbers arriving. Under the current administration … we don’t have a clear plan yet.”

Interview excerpts from the program are below.

Rep. Henry Cuellar Highlights

On whether President Biden should visit the border

Greta Van Susteren

Should present Biden go to the border? And if so, why?

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)

Well, yes, I think it’s important for the President to go there.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)

You got to listen to the border communities because we’re bearing the blunt that he needs to listen also to the men and women in green, because they’re throwing up flares right now and asking for help. And I think we need to listen to our men and women, green and blue also on the border.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)

We’re playing defense on the one-yard line called the U.S. border. I think we need to play defense on their 20-yard line, get Mexico, Guatemala, and the other countries to do a lot more.

On the administration not allowing journalists into shelters

Greta Van Susteren

In terms of the unaccompanied minors, the ones who are detained in shelters, for instance, the Biden administration has not allowed the press to have access to this … What’s your thought about the fact that the press can’t get in and report?

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)

They use the excuse, and I’ll use the word excuse, of the COVID-19, but you know very well they can let you in. And my opinion is very simple: They need to let you in. They need to tell the American public what’s going on. And I think it’s very important that you all go in. They can make it happen. I was at a shelter. They’ll let members of Congress. They should let the media come in also.

On the U.S. working with Mexico on border security

Greta Van Susteren

Has Mexico looked the other way in terms of securing its Southern border?

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)

Well, they’ve been doing some work on the Southern border. I’ve been at the border of Guatemala and Mexico. And I saw people just walk, well, actually, float across, they have a little river there, and just come like it was nothing. And we were there with security. They didn’t even pay attention to us. Can they do more? ... They’re trying to do a little bit more, but in my opinion, I think they can do a lot more if they’re partners with us on that. They’ve done it in the past and they can do it again.

On why people are coming to the U.S.

Greta Van Susteren

You’ve been in the facilities where we’re holding or detaining or taking care of sheltering the unaccompanied minors. Did you have a chance to talk to them and find out why they wanted to come to the United States, why they’re here?

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)

There were about 20 of them, 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds. I said, “Have any of y’all heard the president’s message when he said, don’t come now, come later?” Which is a wrong message. To be honest. He oughta say, “Don’t come.” None of them raised their hands. And I said ...”Any groups helping you?” And they all said, “Yes.” So it’s their friends and neighbors, network, images of people coming across, and the groups that are aggressively marketing this message down there.

Greta Van Susteren

Well, they’re paying to come here, many of them, to come into the United States, and it’s frightfully expensive, at least I think it is. They must think that there’s something here to make it worthwhile.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)

Right. Look, they charge from 4,000 to 8,000. So let’s say the average is $6,000 per person. We had 100,000 people that passed in February. That’s 100,000 times 6,000, that’s $600 million for one month.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)

I told the administration they need to do a better job in tracking the money … they need to find, track those dollars, to find those organizations and disrupt the money.

Otherwise, they’re going to continue making billions of dollars over the year on drugs and on trafficking and smuggling people to the US border.

On how to solve the immigration issue

Greta Van Susteren

Do you foresee any resolution, a global immigration plan or bipartisanship, or the two parties working together to solve this? Or is this just going to continue?

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)

If we don’t do this in a bipartisan way, then it’s not going to happen … But all I heard from my Republican friends is say, “There’s a border crisis. People are coming in.” And they’re using that to say no to immigration.

Greta Van Susteren

Are you satisfied President Biden will do this?

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)

I think President Biden is going to do everything to get this done. I have faith in him. Right now, there’s a low calibration that his administration needs to do on borders. And I hope that they listen to some of us that just don’t go visit the border, but we actually live at the border. But I think he’ll do the calibration.

Sen. James Lankford Highlights

On Lankford’s visit to the Arizona border

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

I went to Arizona in particular there. This is an area where the border construction had stopped … It’s interesting to see when construction stops what that really looks like because you get the picture of the wall is finished for this mile and then move to the next mile, then move to the next one. It’s not how it works. They do a very long section, 20-30 miles and the maintenance gates are last.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

This particular section in Nogalas, the fencing is done except for the maintenance gates … If the border construction doesn’t restart and just get that last little bit finished you’ve got a big open fence.

Greta Van Susteren

Should Present Biden go to the border and look at it himself?

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

Absolutely, President Biden should go. When he declared, let’s stop wall construction entirely, he needs to see the consequences of that, the big gaps that are in the wall, the technology that’s never been installed. I’ve heard a lot of my Democratic colleagues say, “Well, let’s do technology not the wall.” Well, literally this stopped the technology being constructed in that area where there’s no cameras, there’s no lighting, there’s no ground sensing technology. All those things were ready to be installed. They’re not there. President Biden needs to be able to see what’s happening when he stopped construction. He needs to get to the Rio Grande Valley and to see the influx of minors that are coming in that area and what it really looks like on the ground in these facilities.

On the surge at the border

Greta Van Susteren

Senator, what’s the reason for the surge? We had the surge during President Obama’s administration. It stopped. We had one during President Trump’s administration. It stopped. And we have one now. What’s the reason for the surge?

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

There is really three different factors that I see that are it. President Biden really came out and said ..”If you’re an unaccompanied minor then you can come and you don’t have to have this Title 42 authority. You can just come across.” Well, that means 17 years old and down are coming in massive numbers now. So, that’s the first big piece.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

He announced on his very first day in office that the emergency is over and the border construction is stopping. That sent a signal to those in the cartels that, hey, we’re going to handle this different as the United States now. And the third issue was the president announced on his very first day of office that for the next 100 days we’re not going to deport anyone. Combine those three things together and that’s a message to these human smugglers that are in Central America, now is the time to be able to do the things they haven’t, and things are changing. Even though President Biden said, “Hey, don’t come,” the message with the policy is really being sent, “yes, you can come.” And we’re seeing a significant number of unaccompanied minors that are getting in.

Greta Van Susteren

Are there other reasons that they’re coming?

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

A lot of times it’s a family member that’s here. Someone that could have come to the United States 20 years ago, 15 years ago, and they’re working in the United States now and they’ll contact family members back home and say, “Hey, your son is old enough now. He’s 16. Why don’t you send him to the United States? He can live with us and he can work and we can mail you money back.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

That’s an economic refugee … That’s not asylum and a lot of people misunderstand asylum issues. Asylum is you really fleeing from what is a danger to you. Economic interest is not asylum. And even if you’re in a country where let’s say your next-door neighbor was horrible and it was a risk for you to live there you can move to another part of the country. There are many areas of our country where we see high crime rates but you can move to another part of the country. That’s true in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras as well. So just to say, “Hey, we’re in a high crime neighborhood in Guatemala,” so they came to America does not meet the qualifications for asylum.

On whether Congress do something about immigration

Greta Van Susteren

Are we ever going to have an immigration plan in this country? Is Congress going to do something?

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

Yes. The challenge is the when on that. Congress moves when there’s a deadline and that’s been our biggest challenge on immigration. When’s the deadline to be able to solve the immigration? It’s always tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.

Greta Van Susteren

Do we have a global deadline now for having a comprehensive immigration plan?

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

There isn’t a deadline.

Greta Van Susteren

So the American people shouldn’t expect an immigration plan?

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

No, the American people should expect it.

Greta Van Susteren

But they aren’t going to get it. Are they going to get it?

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

I don’t see one pending in front of us.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

At the end of the day, we have a problem with immigration in America … we’re still the country the rest of the world wants to come to and until we resolve how we handle our work visas, how are we going to handle our border security issues, and what we’re going to do with millions and millions of people who are not legally present in the country, we will continue to have this problem.

Sheriff Martin Cuellar Highlights

On the current surge a the border

Sheriff Martin Cuellar, Webb County, Texas

No, it doesn’t surprise me. I mean, we’ve seen it in the past, but you know, recently we’ve seen some video, we’ve seen people also crossing their line, getting across in boats

Greta Van Susteren

Behind us is this beautiful river. It looks like a nice swim, but it’s actually quite dangerous. People die crossing it ...

Sheriff Martin Cuellar, Webb County, Texas

It’s very dangerous. There’s currents underneath. Just two days ago, there were some immigrants coming across and they drowned.

On whether cartels are responsible

Greta Van Susteren

These are the cartels that you hold accountable for this?

Sheriff Martin Cuellar, Webb County, Texas

Oh absolutely. I mean they’re very controlling. That’s who’s doing it.

Greta Van Susteren

Has there been any effort, as far as you know, to stop the cartels? I mean, have they made any inroads because the story I’m hearing is pretty bleak about what’s going on over there.

Sheriff Martin Cuellar, Webb County, Texas

I mean the federal government tries to do their job as far as wanting to control it. But it’s a big picture in that of course there’s corruption in all levels and you’re going to see it. So, it’s tough to get it under control. You know, if Mexico will allow the United States to help them and to just fight the cartels, I think there would be a better country to live in.

Greta Van Susteren

So it seems to me, we have a lot of law enforcement over here, very earnest to try to solve the problem, but we’re getting a lot of problems from over there.

Sheriff Martin Cuellar, Webb County, Texas

Oh absolutely. We have surges of immigrants coming over. Nowadays, instead of going to a neighborhood and arresting people with a load of marijuana, nowadays we’ll get a call and there’s immigrants. There’s 40, 50, a hundred immigrants in a house. It seems like the money... Is there more money in immigrants than there is in drugs? Believe it or not. You know, that’s why the cartels are concentrating more on working immigrants.

On the border wall

Sheriff Martin Cuellar, Webb County, Texas

In Arizona where there’s a desert out there and there’s no river, nothing to distinguish for you … I think the wall will be great there, but here, you don’t need, I don’t think you need a wall. What you need here is technology, more personnel, to be able to secure the border.

On what President Biden should do

Sheriff Martin Cuellar, Webb County, Texas

I would say that we look at the immigration reform. I think the immigration reform needs to be worked on.

Greta Van Susteren

Like how? What would you do?

Sheriff Martin Cuellar, Webb County, Texas

We have to have more immigration judges. And of course, I’m shooting from the hip, you have to remember that it is not our primary job, but the way I look at it, it affects our community. Because they’re being led out in our community … Most situations, they’re not going to be here. They’re not going to show up to court. So there they’re out there. So I think if we had more immigration judges,, even have more courthouses where we can train the immigrants and take them straight to court and find out why are they fleeing, wherever they’re coming from, and find out if there’s enough to let them in. You know, I’m not a judge or an attorney on that, but I think that’s what we need to do.

Pastor Michael Smith Highlights

COVID’s impact on his community center

Pastor Michael Smith, Executive Director, Holding Institute Community Center

Our capacity, let’s say, pre-COVID was about 150. Right now, even with tents that we’ve added, outdoor tents, we’re probably about 75. All of that was cut in half because of social distancing and COVID requirements.

Pastor Michael Smith, Executive Director, Holding Institute Community Center

That has hurt us in the sense that people say, “Well, you’re getting 30, 40 people a day. What happens to them?” Well, they’re not leaving immediately, and so it’s just building up and building up. So, we try and say yes to everybody that we can, but at some point we’re going to do outdoor shelters, weather permitting. That means we’re going to have people sleeping on cots outside, not even in a tent.

Greta Van Susteren

Thirty to 40 coming now. Six months ago, what was the number like?

Pastor Michael Smith, Executive Director, Holding Institute Community Center

Oh, six months ago the number may have been five people a week.

Greta Van Susteren

So, what changed? Why suddenly, right now, we have this surge? We’ve had them on other years, as well, but why now?

Pastor Michael Smith, Executive Director, Holding Institute Community Center

The change is definitely related to our change in administration.

Greta Van Susteren

Biden’s administration? You mean presidential administration?

Pastor Michael Smith, Executive Director, Holding Institute Community Center

Yes, most definitely. Under the Trump administration, whether you liked his plan or not, it was a clear plan. It was clear-cut. And it hurt. So, that’s why you had the fewer numbers arriving. Under the current administration, I think we have a plan in progress, but we don’t have a clear plan, yet. So, that uncertainty has allowed people to surge and to come to the northern border in Mexico, and to wait and see what happens.

Greta Van Susteren

We’re here in Laredo, we’re on the border, about how far is the border from here?

Pastor Michael Smith, Executive Director, Holding Institute Community Center

The border is actually right behind me, about six blocks.

Greta Van Susteren

And who are the people who are arriving?

Pastor Michael Smith, Executive Director, Holding Institute Community Center

Specifically, we’re getting asylum seekers. They are those who are coming from overflow detention centers, or also people who have crossed in between ports of entry, and what we consider humanitarian releases. Humanitarian releases are those that have very young children, infants, women who are in late-term pregnancy or other debilitating conditions that they may be able to.

Greta Van Susteren

The people here have permission by the United States to be here, right?

Pastor Michael Smith, Executive Director, Holding Institute Community Center

Yes. Everybody who arrives here arrives with a packet with a pre-appointed court date, sometimes within 30 days of their arrival, somewhere within the United States where they say they’re going to, they must appear with that document.

Pastor Michael Smith, Executive Director, Holding Institute Community Center

In order for someone to be released from detention or from processing at the border to us, they have to indicate a destination point, with a phone number. A lot of times they get here with that paperwork, and they’ll find out that the person who was going to receive them, possibly a family member, declined, changed their mind, there’s no money for travel, they have COVID, a lot of reasons. So, that changes the plan entirely, and that puts the burden on us as a host to find a sponsor for them. So, we’ll reach out to churches, to networks all across the country to find if there’s someone that can sponsor them, at least temporarily.

Greta Van Susteren

Why do people say they come here? I don’t mean here to the Holding Institute, but to the United States.

Pastor Michael Smith, Executive Director, Holding Institute Community Center

I think the primary reason... I’ve heard people say everything from economics, to fear, to hope for a better future. I know that economics is not up at the top of the list for asylum entry into the United States. But I can tell you almost 100% of the people that come here, they say they don’t want to live here permanently. That their desire is to return back home, that they’ve left a loved one back home, that they’ve left family back home, and their desire is to collect enough money, to collect enough support, to send back home along with themselves. They don’t want to be a permanent resident of the United States. They see this as way to improve their lives back in their home country.

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About Greta Van Susteren:

Greta Van Susteren is the Chief Political Analyst for Gray Media and host of Full Court Press. Ms. Van Susteren is a veteran of Fox News Channel, MSNBC, and CNN. Her prime-time Fox News Channel Show, “On the Record,” was number 1 in its time slot for 14 1⁄2 years. Before joining Fox News, she hosted CNN’s prime-time news and analysis program, “The Point with Greta Van Susteren,” and co-hosted the network’s daily legal analysis show, “Burden of Proof.” Her legal analysis for CNN’s coverage of Election 2000 earned her the American Bar Association’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Journalism. She continues to host the weekly 30-minute program “Plugged In with Greta Van Susteren” on Voice of America, which broadcasts exclusively outside of the United States.

About “Full Court Press” and Gray Television:

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