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Where William Barr, Trump's Pick To Be Next Attorney General, Stands On Immigration


On Friday, President Trump announced that William Barr is his pick to be the next attorney general. Barr served in that role in the early 1990s under President George H.W. Bush. He earned a reputation as a law-and-order conservative, especially on one issue that's been a high priority for President Trump - immigration. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. He joins us now. And Joel, first, what can you tell us about Barr's views?

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Well, he's long been an immigration hardliner, even before that became a popular position in Republican politics. Back in the '90s, when he was the attorney general under George H.W. Bush, there was a lot more focus on violent crime. But cracking down on illegal immigration has always been a big concern for Barr. Here he is in 1994 talking about people crossing the southwest border illegally.


WILLIAM BARR: The real tragedy is because of accidents of geography, we have people who are not willing to stand in line under the fair system but come crashing in the back door. We have laws on the books, and they have to be enforced.

CORNISH: It also seems like Barr hasn't been afraid to comment on Trump administration policies - right? - including some that have been challenged in court.

ROSE: That's right. He commented in fact on some of the administration's immigration policies last year in an op-ed that he wrote, expressing support for the original version of President Trump's travel ban on people from majority-Muslim countries. Barr wrote that it fits squarely within the president's authority on immigration. Of course, several courts disagreed. The Supreme Court eventually did side with the administration, but only after the administration scaled back its initial travel ban considerably.

CORNISH: What's the analysis on how he might affect immigration enforcement at the Justice Department?

ROSE: Well, like Barr, the previous attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was a longtime immigration hawk who did a lot at the department to advance that agenda, for example, cracking down on illegal immigration at the border, making it harder for Central American migrants to get asylum in the U.S. And it seems pretty likely that Barr would continue all of those policies. Here he is talking about asylum abuse back in the 1990s.


BARR: If you come into the United States, no matter how clearly frivolous your claim is, and you set foot in the United States, and you're caught, can't put them on a plane and send them away if they say, I want to claim asylum.

CORNISH: This echoes a little bit what we've heard from the Trump administration - right? - when they talk about asylum-seekers. And I know the president has said he wants migrants to stay in Mexico while their asylum claims are heard. Any sense of how Barr might approach this?

ROSE: Well, I think we get a pretty good idea about that from something that happened during Barr's earlier stint as attorney general when there was a coup in Haiti, and tens of thousands of Haitians fled the island, trying to seek asylum in the United States. Barr was a major advocate back then for a plan that intercepted those asylum-seekers at sea in order to prevent them from reaching U.S. soil and filing their asylum claims here.

Many of those Haitians were held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and eventually sent back to Haiti. That plan was challenged in court, but it was ultimately upheld. And now it's seen as a possible precedent for what the Trump administration is trying to do. As you say, on the southwest border, the president now wants to prevent Central American migrants from coming into the U.S. while their asylum claims play out in court.

CORNISH: And we should clarify, while the president has been tweeting a lot about stopping the migrant caravans and securing the border, that job actually falls to another agency.

ROSE: That's correct. The INS used to be part of the Justice Department when Barr ran it before. Now it's part of the Department of Homeland Security, which is run by Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. There has been a lot of talk about whether her job is secure as the number of migrants apprehended at the border with Mexico continues to climb.

It was up again in November, by the way, to more than 60,000 people. That is the highest monthly total since President Trump took office. And that cannot be going over well at the White House. Trump has reportedly been furious about this.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Joel Rose. Joel, thank you for sharing this with us.

ROSE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE IN GREEN'S "RAINY STREETS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.