Angus King: ‘People Coming to Claim Asylum Are Not Illegal Immigrants’

‘There’s a lot of data that there are alternatives to detention that can still ensure that people show up for their court hearing’

CHUCK TODD: Joining me now from Brunswick, Maine, is Independent Senator Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats. Want to get a perspective from the other side of the aisle. Senator King, welcome back to Meet the Press, sir.

SENATOR ANGUS KING: Great to be with you, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD: So let me ask -- start with the same question I asked Senator Lankford. Have we misnamed this? Is this a refugee crisis more than it is a migrant or immigration crisis?

SENATOR ANGUS KING: I think it is. I think that's exactly right. It's more of an asylum and refugee. I think it's important to make some distinctions. These are almost entirely people coming from Central America, not Mexico. Particularly Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. And they are fleeing violence. And that's one of the reasons this idea of a deterrent may not work. If you're looking down the barrel of a gun in your home community, whatever your chances are to get to a free country, you're going to take it in order to save your family's lives. So that really is what we're talking about here. And this is very different from the waves of illegal immigrants coming across the border 15, 20 years ago, mostly from Mexico, simply looking for jobs. Mexican migration has diminished enormously.

CHUCK TODD: Right, so if you believe it should be treated more as a refugee crisis, so for instance that would be sort of I guess how we handled the Cubans in the '60s, Hungarians in the '50s, Vietnamese in the '70s, how should the policy change? Does the government intervention, should it be different if it's a refugee crisis?

SENATOR ANGUS KING: Well, yeah, because if you're crossing the border illegally with no claim of asylum or refugee status, then that's a crime and we have a process for deportation. People coming to claim asylum are not illegal immigrants. Under the law, they have a right to establish their claim of asylum, that they're in a legitimate fear for their life, that they're fleeing persecution in their home country. And that applies, by the way, to people coming from other parts of the world. But you have that right. And the problem is, James Lankford mentioned this, we don't have enough judges. There's a bureaucratic backlog that can take a year or two in order to get your claim adjudicated. The question then is what do you do with these people in the interim? And the administration made the terrible choice of separating children from their parents. They didn't have to do that. That wasn't required by the law. Now they're saying, "Well, we're going to keep them together, but we're going to keep them together in detention." I don't think that's a necessary choice either. There's a lot of data that there are alternatives to detention that can still ensure that people show up for their court hearing, which by the way, are a lot cheaper for the taxpayers.

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