DAVID GREENE, HOST:
As Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen has defended some of the Trump administration's most controversial positions. And now she is out of a job. She is going to be stepping down on Wednesday. President Trump says he has accepted her resignation. Among other things, Secretary Nielsen forcefully defended the policy of separating families at the southern border after they crossed into the U.S. illegally. Our colleague, John Burnett, asked her about that policy last May.
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JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Separating families is an - it's an extreme measure.
KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Well, it's not. Again, we do it every day in every part of the country. If you have a family, and you commit a crime, the police do not not put you in jail because you have a family. They prosecute you, and they incarcerate you. Illegal aliens should not get just different rights because they happen to be illegal aliens.
GREENE: We're joined this morning by the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. It's Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. Congressman, thanks for taking the time.
BENNIE THOMPSON: Yeah, thank you for having me.
GREENE: So I know your committee. And you follow what happens in this department very closely. We have a change at the top now. You called Secretary Nielsen's tenure a disaster. President Trump has tapped, as her successor, at least in the acting role, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan. What do you think of him?
THOMPSON: Well, we've had several meetings with him. He tends to be, as you know, a senior person in the department. He's been there a long time. And - but again, I don't think Superman could work for President Trump and get along with him because his policies on immigration are so extreme that a person can do their job in the eyes of the law and still fail in the eyes of President Trump.
GREENE: Well, can I just ask you, Congressman, I - if we could zero in on exactly what's happening at the border right now. I mean, I was down there with a reporting team last week in El Paso. And we saw so many families coming across the border, many of them trying to claim asylum. And the mayor of El Paso, Dee Margo, described the responsibility for this moment this way.
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DEE MARGO: Well, they've got to revamp this law and the whole immigration process. They've not done anything for 30 years. There's been no intestinal fortitude exhibited on either side of the aisle. And our president needs to take the lead there. That's the humanitarian crisis, is changing the law. That's the problem.
GREENE: I mean, it appears that current law allows this to be happening in these numbers. Is that fair, and isn't that something that Congress needs to do if this next secretary's going to be able to deal with this crisis?
THOMPSON: Well, I think that we have to do what the law requires right now on the way toward comprehensive immigration reform. We can't stop foreign aid to the Northern Triangle countries. We can't institute policies inconsistent with the law as it is now. Zero-tolerance policy is a bad policy. It's led to a lot of what we are dealing with now. The return-to-Mexico policy, the notion of metering, all those things, David, compound the situation.
But if the president is supposed to be disappointed in what's going on, I encourage him to sit down and talk responsively to those policy heads (inaudible). I've chaired the committee since January. I've not had any engagement from the White House on this immigration topic. I'm absolutely open. But, you know, we have to do more than tweet. If there are some things that we need to work on, we are prepared as Democrats, and I'm prepared as chair of the committee, to sit down and talk through it. But it has to be a civil conversation. It has to be a conversation based on the facts.
GREENE: But with respect, Congressman, I mean, Democrats have already taken votes on things like the war in Yemen, on climate change - I mean, you're in leadership now. What specific idea do you have? If this situation at the border dates back, it seems, to a law that's, like, a decade old that allows people to bring kids across and come into the country, what specific idea are you offering the incoming secretary to deal with these numbers crossing the border right now?
THOMPSON: Well, the best thing I can offer, at this point, is to say, why do we separate children when they come at the border? Children need to be with parents if at all possible. We...
GREENE: But the Trump administration ended that policy. I mean, they're allowed to remain with their parents now when they cross. Isn't that right?
THOMPSON: Well, that's not true. They're still separating families as we speak. So what they say to you but what in - is reality is absolutely not true. So we're continuing to try to work on this issue. But all our departments that are charged with this responsibility have to work together. DHS through CDC has to talk to ICE, has to talk to HHS. So the seamless operation is still very challenging. And I, again, say to the Trump administration, let's sit down and talk and work through these issues.
GREENE: Congressman Bennie Thompson is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Congressman, thanks very much.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
GREENE: And NPR's lead political editor, Domenico Montanaro, is on the line with us. Hi, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: Interesting there. I mean, when we had our team in El Paso last week, it appeared that if you were a parent of a child, you were not being separated from your child. It sounds like Democrats are very determined to say that that is not always the case and say that the Trump administration is still separating families. What's going on here?
MONTANARO: Well, the fact of the matter is there hasn't been a comprehensive immigration bill that's passed since 2013. And that passed with 68 votes in the Senate but was never brought up for a vote in the House. And beyond that, there hasn't been a lot of work to be done to try to get a real, you know, piece of legislation that goes forward that hasn't been so overly politicized to a point where - you know, that people can't come to the table.
The Trump administration has gone the complete opposite direction of where Republicans had been in the past, very recently, looking to want to do something to try to, you know, not just work with - you know, not shutting down the border, but getting people who are in this country to have either a path to legalization or citizenship. And it has gone the complete opposite way. And that's where this Trump administration is at this point.
GREENE: So there does not seem to be any effort at bipartisanship to solve this crisis at the border right now, at a time when people like the mayor of El Paso are begging Congress and the president to do something together.
MONTANARO: None, because it has become so polarized.
GREENE: NPR lead political editor, Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thanks.
MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.