Ken Cuccinelli: DHS Tackling Drug Cartels, Illegal Immigration, and Forced Labor in China

Recently, border patrol officers found 7 tons of marijuana hidden in what was supposed to be a shipment of limes. And they found over 600 pounds of methamphetamine disguised in a cactus shipment.

COVID-19 restrictions on border crossings have made it a lot harder for cartels to smuggle drugs into the United States. So in some cities, prices for illicit drugs have doubled.

On the other side of the globe, communist China has been exploiting imprisoned Uyghurs and others to produce cotton textiles, electronics, and other commodities. The Department of Homeland Security along with the State, Treasury, and Commerce departments recently warned businesses about employing forced labor in their supply chains.

In this episode, we sit down with Ken Cuccinelli, the Acting Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.

Jan Jekielek: Ken Cuccinelli, it’s such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Ken Cuccinelli: Good to be with you.

Mr. Jekielek: There’s been a lot of talk recently about asylum-seeking. Actually, we’re going to talk a lot about the border and what’s happening at the border. There’s been people saying that basically, asylum seekers are being completely turned away; there’s no opportunity; this incredible system that America has had is going away, and I wanted to give you a chance to speak to that.

Mr. Cuccinelli: Certainly in the United States, we have for a long time, certainly years in my lifetime, had the most generous immigration system in the world. And that has not changed. What has changed is we have a president who insists that people not abuse it and obey the law. That has not existed in the presidency in this millennium. Here, President Trump comes along and actually enforces the rules, and uses the legal authorities he has available to him to do that. And so people view all of what we’re doing through that light, but we’re still bringing refugees in, we still are bringing asylees in, and we bring more in than any other country in the world. So anything short of characterizing America as the most generous immigration country in the world would be inaccurate.

Mr. Jekielek: There’s been these allegations even among USCIS workers. People are saying that they don’t want to follow the current policy. Some are even saying it’s unlawful or something like that. What would you say to that?

Mr. Cuccinelli: Certainly, they are lawful. The president has been very strong in insisting with us, as we implement his policies, that we stay within the boundaries of the law unlike previous administration. Employees who don’t like that are welcome to leave—that’s their primary option. But the notion of public service is service regardless of who’s in authority.

Of course, the question of whether the actions are illegal, first, belongs to the administration and we police ourselves in terms of keeping our legal activities within the boundaries of the law. And then second, the Trump administration has the distinction of being sued over everything we do. So some court, somewhere, will decide each question that whatever employee is curious about, has in their mind.

But as you watch over the years, and as those cases move up the path of courts through the appellate system, the president wins those cases, and he wins those cases because he’s been pretty firm with his team to stay within those boundaries of the law. He is a rule of law president, and he leads by example in that regard.

Mr. Jekielek: Even under coronavirus where, of course, there are even significant restrictions when it comes to border traffic and so forth, are there asylum seekers coming through at this time?

Mr. Cuccinelli: All of that still continues. We are operating under public health order at the southern border. We entered into agreements with Canada and Mexico about economic traffic and that’s brought the traffic at both borders, northern and southern, down by over 50 percent. That’s legal traffic. And under the health care order, if you will, or public health order, really, for the southern border, most of the people we encounter at the southern border are dealt with from a public health standpoint, over 80 percent.

The ones coming from Mexico, and the northern triangle countries and so forth, are returned to Mexico on average in under two hours. You’ll recall that we had what was called the MPP, we still have, the MPP program—Migrant Protection Protocols. And so people coming and seeking asylum are waiting in Mexico for those hearings, rather than what was going on before. With the numbers that were coming through, there were so many that we couldn’t hold them through the process of giving them a full hearing.

That has worked spectacularly well, and the very same people, career asylum officers, who were deciding 25 percent and 30 percent of cases should be granted asylum in general, are deciding around 1 percent to 3 percent out of that MPP program. Again, the same people judging the cases, and the reason is because people were flooding the southern border trying to, essentially, work together to flood our system and overwhelm it to get through the process in the sense that they just be released, and then we never see them again.

The partnership with Mexico has allowed us to maintain a proper due process based system that gives everybody their day in court, frankly, faster than even the detained docket in the United States. And they wait in Mexico for that, and they get work permits and other things in Mexico while they wait. Mexico has been a great host in that respect.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s jump to maybe both legal and illegal traffic across the border and how it pertains to coronavirus. There’s been some statistics I’ve been reading that there’s heightened levels of coronavirus in those counties that are along the border. Do you have a sense of why that’s happening and what we’re doing to deal with it?

Mr. Cuccinelli: The CDC has been working very hard to get exactly that—a sense of why it’s happening there. It has plateaued, and there are signs it’s improving at this point as you and I sit here talking. But one of the features people assume [is] that illegal traffic drives things like that, and it’s true that the western hemisphere south of us has a worse coronavirus problem probably than we do in terms of the inability to control it.

At the same time, there’s over a million U.S. citizens living in Mexico, the majority of them in northern Mexico, [and] when they’re concerned about their health care system, they can cross the border legally anytime they want. And recent data gathered by CDC of hospitals in those border areas shows 92 percent of the people being treated are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, so we’re not seeing our hospitals flooded with illegal aliens.

That doesn’t mean they can’t contribute to the spread in the community that then shows up in hospitals for instance for treatment, but it is very hard to get an exact answer. Believe me, we’ve been trying for a couple of months because there’s been a rising number of cases there for a while. So while there’s undoubtedly some relationship, I can’t sit here and quantify it for you, and it’s one of the mysteries we’re still trying to solve.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s interesting because I don’t know if people are aware of this million Americans that can travel freely.

Mr. Cuccinelli: I don’t think most people knew that, and certainly, even in DHS, most people didn’t realize that.

Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating information here. So let’s jump to the China Working Group. About a month ago, this China Working Group was initiated. I want to understand what is the scope, what is its purpose, and frankly, what’s been going on the last month?

Mr. Cuccinelli: The scope is virtually as far as we reach. It’s to cover any topic, and certainly for our components and agencies, that covers a lot of ground, whether it’s immigration, both legal and illegal, in the case of China. And China is outrageously recalcitrant in accepting their illegal aliens back. They are one of the two most problematic countries in the world, the other being Cuba, and both of those have more than twice as many illegals in this country who have final orders of removal. They’ve been all the way through the process, who their countries aren’t taking back, and that’s just not good relations.

And so China has talked nice to us repeatedly in the Department of Homeland Security but honestly, they’ve largely proven they were lying. They never intended to cooperate. They’ll take back, oh, you know, pick a number, 100 a month or so, but in the context of 40,000, that’s a drop in the bucket. And they’re coming into this country illegally, or overstaying visas illegally, at a higher rate than they’re taking them back.

And needless to say, we don’t really appreciate that in the United States. So far, we’ve only imposed extremely minimal sanctions. The Department of State has been excessively restrained, in my view, in terms of making this matter to the communist Chinese government there.

Mr. Jekielek: Something I was reading about was this Xinjiang Supply Chain Business Advisory—DHS involved and that’s fascinating. I come from the human rights side of things back in the day. What exactly are you doing?

Mr. Cuccinelli: With that report, we put that out jointly with other departments like state and so forth, sharing what we’ve learned over the years about how the communist Chinese government forcibly detains Uyghurs and others in that region of China, and then forces them to engage in labor for the profit of the state. Whether it’s cotton textiles, electronics, there’s a variety of things that have been identified.

That’s something that obviously we want to sensitize businesses to, thus the report is to inform them so they can further educate themselves on their own supply chains to extricate themselves from any relationships that they discover are relying on forced labor, slave labor. And that is just the beginning of what we’re doing there. You’ve seen customs border protection in their trade role withhold release orders of—or three different ones recently against various Chinese companies for their use of slave labor in delivering products to the United States.

Those products get held, and they either have to prove that they in fact were not made with slave labor, forced labor, or they have to ameliorate the aspects of that labor that essentially made it a humanitarian problem—brought it out of compliance with our laws. And that’s accelerating, I would say, in those efforts. And other countries, to use Australia as an example, are becoming more aggressive in this space as well.

So the human rights person in you would appreciate that this has basically gotten a lot bigger on the world’s radar, and I think American leadership and the president has pushed us hard in this space to reveal all of this—has played a big role in that.

Mr. Jekielek: Aside from what we just discussed, these two areas, what else is this China Working Group up to?

Mr. Cuccinelli: There’s real interest in medical supply chains. You’ll hear from Peter Navarro and Larry Kudlow, from the White House, on the subject as well. We study, from a trade perspective, the course of products, and because of CBP’s [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] trade role which we inherited from the Treasury Department, we’re engaged in those discussions.

You’ve seen the president issued an executive order to shore up medical supply chains, for instance. That was something that we were deeply involved in. And our S and T, science and technology, folks participate as well in developing some of the technologies that allow us to analyze some of these things and to understand them in ways. I look forward to explaining, hopefully in the months ahead as we finalize some things, how we can use some technologies to better understand the flow of these goods, particularly where some portion of them is made in violation of the law.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s jump to the border then. Actually, I think the president is at the border in Newmont.

Mr. Cuccinelli: Yes, today.

Mr. Jekielek: What is the situation with the border wall? There’s been some progress, growth in its length. What is the current situation with the border wall, and how is it impacted? Let’s not just talk about the immigration issue, but also the smuggling of drugs and human trafficking and so forth.

Mr. Cuccinelli: It took us three years from the president’s inauguration to get to 100 miles, it took six more months to get to 200 miles, and it took us less than three months to get to 300 miles. So at this rate, I would expect us to hit 400 miles in the fall, and we’ll certainly beat the 450-mile mark by the end of the year, with room to spare, I think.

The border patrol agents, when you talk to them about the role the wall plays in accomplishing their mission, they do nothing but lavish praise on this system. And it’s not just a wall. We put up surveillance. We’ve put up roadways behind the wall to move from point A to point B quickly, in ways that we couldn’t necessarily do before, and it’s being built in areas that are highest priority for crossings. So it does the most to impede the crossing of people, of illegal goods, and the combinations of those two.

You have human smuggling operations connected to gangs and cartels on the south side of the border that make money off this trafficking business, as they see it, but they also use these same pipelines to move meth and opioids, and all these drugs that are killing 70-plus-thousand Americans a year, into this country, and the way the illicit drug business has evolved, it overwhelmingly comes through Mexico. They are making it synthetically or they’re moving it in the case of cocaine.

And so there’s a lot of value not just to stopping illegal immigration of people with the wall, but also of impeding the ability of these drug cartels who are some of the most vicious, violent, evil people in this hemisphere, to move their products into this country. So it serves both those purposes.

When you’ve got a wall in front of you, and you can’t get over this wall, you have to go somewhere else. So it does move the traffic but it moves it in ways that are predictable and that allow us to apply our limited manpower to those gaps. And so we are, in my view, doing a better job of picking up each person who crosses the border illegally, identifying that they are crossing, one—and then intercepting them and returning them to their home countries, two.

Our ability to do that has improved rather dramatically by building more of this wall with a 1900-plus-mile border. A good portion of it borders on impassable. So there are critical areas in Texas, in Arizona and California, and some in New Mexico as well, that are the corridors you expect people and drugs to come through, and it’s those areas where we’re focusing first on building the wall.

The president’s very proud of this. He promised that we would do it, we’re doing it, and this is one area like so many others in our area of responsibility—the Department of Homeland Security. The biggest thing you can say about the president over the last three years is he’s done what he said he would do.

We face major hurdles, lawsuits continue, and they’ve sometimes stopped construction, but we have overcome those. We’ve prevailed in those cases because again, we were operating within the boundaries of the law. And that’s proven a great success for the national security of this country and critically to us, the safety of our officers as they perform their jobs.

Mr. Jekielek: You recently had a big meth bust. I recall they were disguised as cactus leaves or something like that.

Mr. Cuccinelli: A couple were.

Mr. Jekielek: Also, there’s been a lot of fentanyl seizure. I wanted to get a sense of how that level of apprehending the people smuggling these drugs [now] compares to a year or two ago?

Mr. Cuccinelli: That’s a comparison we make regularly, but COVID has made it a little squirrely. Early in COVID, because less people were crossing the border, we literally reached incredibly low levels, 16,000 in one month, for instance, which is a number below—I don’t know when the last time it had been that low. But those pipelines of people are cover for the drug organizations to move drugs too. So when those numbers drop, they lose their opportunities to move products across.

So what’s happening is they’re producing these things and they can’t get them across the borders easily. I keep in touch with my street cop friends from different parts of the country, and two different guys, two different weeks, two different drugs, both told me, I want to say it was opioids and meth, that the price had doubled per ounce, per pound, per kilogram, and street price had doubled because of COVID.

I haven’t circled back around with them in the last month or so to see how that’s changing but as the numbers crossing the border go back up, it creates more opportunities for cover, for the drug cartels, and so they move more product into the United States. Now, as you know, we’re interjecting an awful lot of it. We’ve seen incredible spikes in the ports of entry where they’re trying to smuggle it through a legal port of entry.

And our technology is improving there as well and in the coming years, we’re going to get better and better at spotting and rooting out the drugs coming through in what would otherwise look like legal traffic. And some of that is dogs which I am a particular fan of, but some of it is other types of technology that we’re using there. And as we get better and better at that, we’re going to squeeze them out entirely of those ports of entry, and they’re going to rely more and more heavily on that illegal traffic, and the wall comes into play to make that more difficult for them.

The wall doesn’t make ports of entry any more difficult for them, it makes everything else more difficult for them, and it allows us to focus our resources in ways that catches more of what they’re trying to put in here. I should also note, by the way, we’ve been cooperating, particularly over the last eight or nine months, with Mexico on southbound traffic of guns, and ammunition, and currency, and the cooperation, sharing of intelligence and other things has been gradually increasing and improving.

And we’re doing a better and better job as a team of interdicting these flows as well, and that’s important to try to help Mexico keep the violence down in their country because obviously they have a very high murder rate, mostly cartel on cartel violence. But we want to try to do what we can to eliminate the weapons and ammunition coming from the United States, so we’ve been putting a lot of effort into that.

Mr. Jekielek: What about the human trafficking and sex trafficking piece of the equation? Presumably, there’s been reduced traffic there as well during COVID, but how is that playing out?

Mr. Cuccinelli: The sex trafficking runs along the same pipelines as the human trafficking. The easiest way to think of this is as pipelines, and they can put people through them, they can put drugs through them, they can put people who’ve paid to come through them, they can put people they’re forcing through them, be it sex trafficking victims, for instance. They can also put terrorists through them. That’s rare numerically, but it can and does happen as well. And those are things we have to be particularly careful of.

So it’s one pipeline. All they think of it as is products. They think of people as just a money-making opportunity, anymore than they do drugs. And so as the flows go down, it becomes harder for them to hide because we can apply more resources to what is there, whether it’s drugs or people. And so we have managed to interdict more of, probably as a percentage, the flows of involuntarily trafficked people—people who didn’t pay to come to this country but are being forced at gunpoint, and threatening their families, and doing other things.

And the advertising has continued in Central America—not caravans, those have been successfully stopped for the last year and a half—for smugglers who just advertise like you’d advertise any other product here in the United States. And they talk about how well they’re going to treat you and all these other things, but oftentimes what ends up happening is you cross one border and then they turn around, guns in hand and demand another fee, and that can happen in northern Mexico as well with the “plaza” bosses, and people who don’t pay it can be killed. So that’s one of the dangers that people suffer from.

But the human trafficking is handled more by the gangs and the cartels themselves, and they reach to endpoints in this country. And ICE, Homeland Security, investigation has been ramping up its efforts to interdict those flows, including tracing them far into the United States, not just dealing with it at the border. But in South Carolina, to use one bust as an example, they traced it all the way through over there.

And we look at trying to hit what are called “stash houses,” which are way points for these human smuggling organizations where they divide up their drug product to make it harder to catch all of it. They also do the same with people and they move them in different directions from these local points, often in the border states—Texas, Arizona, California. And so ICE, Homeland Security, has a major role to play in breaking that up and they’re the primary ones going after the human smuggling pieces. They also get after the drugs but the human smuggling is a major target for them, and it’s been expanding in terms of the amount of resources being put into that.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s fascinating to hear that there might be some small silver lining out of the whole COVID thing, allowing you to deal with this issue. Any final words before we finish up?

Mr. Cuccinelli: Just the one, in the Department of Homeland Security, in this whole immigration space and dealing with China, we have a president who’s done what he said he would do. [I’ve] been proud to be part of that team which really has put America first in the sense of making sure our immigration system is set aside for those who are playing by the rules, who we invite here with the generosity America always has, but has been the toughest that I ever remember on the people who aren’t playing by the rules.

That’s the right way to be. Part of being a rule of law country is to respect both sides of that equation and to apply the appropriate resources to both sides of that equation. I think this president has done that. And as someone who had been engaged in policy and politics for years before I entered this administration, frankly, it’s nice to see someone who runs for office and then actually does what they said they would. That’s something we’re very proud of here.

Mr. Jekielek: Ken Cuccinelli, such a pleasure to have you on.

Mr. Cuccinelli: Good to be with you. Thanks for visiting.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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