STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Cecilia Munoz keeps photos at her desk. The desk is in the White House where she advises President Obama. The photos show people crowded in a detention facility near the U.S.-Mexico border.
CECILIA MUNOZ: This is the facility that you come to when you're first apprehended at the border. These are folks who looked for border control agents. And you can see there are some children here as well.
INSKEEP: One is a kid, maybe 4, who's climbed into a window. A flood of unaccompanied children from Central America has put President Obama under pressure. Advocates want help for the kids. Republicans claim the president's policies encourage them to come. Reporters in Central America say smugglers are spreading rumors of lenient treatment in the United States. The Administration has asked Congress for money to care for the kids and to more rapidly send them back. But White House adviser Cecilia Munoz knows that's not easy. She used to work as an advocate for immigrants herself. How are you going to speed deportations of unaccompanied minors while still protecting their legal rights?
MUNOZ: Well, it's a matter of making sure that we honor the humanitarian claims that some children might come forward with. That means having properly trained asylum officers available to talk to the children to see if they have credible claims and moving those cases forward expeditiously. But it also means being willing in the cases where folks - kids get on the other side of that process and they don't qualify. We have to be willing to return them and we have to do that in cooperation with their home countries because these are children. We recognize this as a humanitarian situation. They've been through a harrowing journey.
INSKEEP: Everything you just said makes me wonder if you really can't speed up this process.
MUNOZ: We absolutely can. The process - we have a process now - this isn't the first year that we've had migrants from Central America or unaccompanied children, and the process takes too long. And so we are using the resources that we have now to get more immigration judges, more asylum officers, more prosecutors into the system for recent arrivals so that we can more efficiently remove the people who end up being removable. But we're also seeking authorities from the Congress to give the secretary of Homeland Security the ability also to have more tools in his toolbox.
INSKEEP: If we assume Congress gives the president what he asks - which is a large assumption, as you know. If I'm not mistaken, the Administration is asking for dozens of additional judges to hear cases. But we're talking about an increase of tens of thousands of young people. Are dozens of judges really going to make that much difference?
MUNOZ: They will make a significant difference. Look, we are not going to be able to make this process an immediate process. And we shouldn't because, again, we have to adjudicate humanitarian claims. But the fact of the matter is we've been trying to fix a very badly back-logged system for a very long time. That's part of the reason we're pushing for an immigration reform bill.
INSKEEP: So what is an acceptable amount of time for a young person to be held before they get a deportation hearing and a judgment? Right now, if I'm not mistaken, it's commonly two years?
MUNOZ: Well, it's difficult to say 'cause each case is different and so there you can't really pick an ideal time frame. The cases...
INSKEEP: What's a good average time frame?
MUNOZ: Well, the whole point is that each of these cases has to be determined on a case-by-case basis. But the fact of the matter is it can take years. And at the end of the day, it's not in the interest of the child or the family or the situation that we're trying to address for the process to be so long that, frankly, smugglers are misleading people by saying, if you put your child in the hands of smugglers we'll get them across the border. And once they get to the border they pretty much get to stay. That's not accurate and it is also really dangerous for these children. So part of the incentive here is to make sure we have an efficient process to make sure the message is clear to any parent who might be considering putting their child in that situation that there is no guarantee of status at the end of the day.
INSKEEP: There's no guarantee of status at the end of the day. And you're correct about the rumors being spread by smugglers. We've heard that from reporters we've talked with in Central America. But there's also an underlying fact of U.S. immigration policy and practices right now that seems to be coming to bear. Young people come into the United States. They are captured or even turn themselves into the border patrol. There's going to be some kind of period while they wait for a hearing. And during that time, they may be released into the United States, released into the custody of a relative. Essentially, they get what they want for a period of years. Are you going to stop doing that?
MUNOZ: We are certainly going to cut down the period of time. That's the intention here, again, is to make sure that for those kids who end up being removable - and we think that's probably going to be a majority of the kids in this situation - that they don't remain in the United States for years and that we cut down the amount of time that it takes.
INSKEEP: Of course there's a flipside to speeding up the deportation hearings and that is that some kids or their advocates may be able to make a case for them to stay because they have relatives here, because they'd like to seek political asylum, any number of other reasons. Are you prepared for the possibility that a very large percentage of the children that you're dealing with may actually end up staying permanently in the United States?
MUNOZ: We think it's unlikely. But the purpose of the law is to protect people who need protecting. And we're very serious about the. But, look, the standards for political asylum are very high. If you look at the history of these kinds of cases and apply them to the situation, it seems very unlikely that a majority of these children are going to have the ability to stay in the United States.
INSKEEP: It's commonly said maybe 40 to 60 percent can at least make a case for themselves. You don't buy that number?
MUNOZ: They may make a case for themselves. The question is whether or not that case will be approved or whether it meets the standards under the law. We think that's unlikely. Again, we will do our best to make sure that we do a faithful job of protecting people's rights under the law. But, look, the message in Central America and to parents who are anticipating, who are watching the situation and thinking about whether they're going to put their children in the hands of smugglers, really needs to be clear this is incredibly dangerous and it is hard to overstate what it means for smuggling organizations to misrepresent what people can expect in the United States in order to lure parents into paying them a lot of money, frankly, to transport their kids.
INSKEEP: Granting that it is dangerous, people on the ground in Central America seem to be making a choice that it may be very dangerous to stay where they are. And as you no doubt know, the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees has urged the United States and other countries to consider these migrants as refugees. Give them refugee status or some other status that allows them to stay. Has there been discussion here in the White House about the idea that perhaps this is not an illegal immigration crisis but a refugee crisis?
MUNOZ: Well, we certainly see it as a humanitarian crisis and that really undergirds our approach to this. We're making sure that we do right, especially by the children who arrive alone in the United States by moving them as quickly as possible into HHS shelters, for example. But, look, the solution to violence and poverty in Central America isn't going to be that everyone can come to the United States. We have to apply our laws and we will do it in a way that's faithful to the humanitarian concerns at stake here.
INSKEEP: Why do you call it a humanitarian crisis and not a refugee crisis?
MUNOZ: Look, when children leave their home countries in large numbers and cross thousands of miles alone, that's a situation of great urgency. And it's one that we should view from a humanitarian lens, whether or not it's a refugee crisis is a legal question that lots of folks are going to debate. But one way or another, when a child enters the United States by themselves - and some of these kids are 7, 8 years old - we have a legal as well as moral obligation to make sure that we deal with them appropriately, that we treat them with compassion and humanity. And I am proud to say that that's what the government is doing. And I am hopeful that we will have bipartisan support in the Congress to make sure that we do it well and that we have the resources to do it effectively. But I have to say that what Congress could do to help us in the long term is pass an immigration bill. And this president's going to continue to fight for that until it happens.
INSKEEP: Cecilia Munoz, thanks very much.
MUNOZ: Thank you.
INSKEEP: She's assistant to the president and White House director of the Domestic Policy Council. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.