NOEL KING, HOST:
Abolish ICE - it has become the rallying cry of some activists and a small but growing number of Democratic officials. They're calling for the dissolution of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Over the weekend, thousands of demonstrators marched in U.S. cities. They called for migrant parents and children to be reunited. Many of them also demanded that the 15-year-old agency be dismantled. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, said on CNN on Sunday that ICE is not doing the job it was designed to do.
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KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: We should protect families that need our help, and that is not what ICE is doing today. And that's why I believe you should get rid of it, start over, reimagine it and build something that actually works.
KING: But some Democrats disagree with her. Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois told CNN that ICE is not the problem.
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TAMMY DUCKWORTH: You abolish ICE now, you still have the same president with the same failed policies.
KING: President Trump himself has not been silent. He and several other Republican leaders are already saying that Democrats who want to abolish ICE are really advocating open borders and that this issue is a political winner for Republicans. Joining us to talk about the politics and policy of ICE is Sarah Saldana. She's the former director of ICE during the Obama administration. And she's with us from member station KERA in Dallas.
Good morning, Mrs. Saldana.
SARAH SALDANA: Good morning.
KING: All right. So what do you think of people calling for the elimination of the agency you once led?
SALDANA: You know, one thing I found out about the immigration issues in this country is that both sides tend to go off the rails sometimes. The - it's a simplistic slogan. I understand the passion behind it. I understand the issues behind it. But as I heard you quote Mrs. Duckworth, that's not the problem. And I've been saying this for several years now. I hope somebody listens one of these days. But what we need to attack is comprehensive immigration reform - the statutes, what to do with the 11 to 12 million people who're already here and move forward in a rational way as opposed to this inflammatory language that is akin to saying that the building of a wall over a 2,000 mile border that does not lend itself fully to a wall is going to solve our border security problems.
KING: All right. Politically, as you know, comprehensive immigration reform has been a very difficult thing to pull off. You recently wrote for Time that the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy is a, quote, "distraction." What do you see is wrong with the president's approach here?
SALDANA: In that opinion letter, I tried to emphasize - there're plenty of people taking care of the compassion and human side of this story. As the director of ICE with responsibility over $6 billion and 20,000 employees, I want to point out to everyone that a practical consideration of - where does your money go in enforcement? - even though $6 billion is a lot of money and sounds like a lot of money, it goes very quickly. So my point is, let's focus on the people that are a threat to national and border security. That is our mission in broad terms. And going after misdemeanor individuals - I don't know who has the time for it. I know U.S. attorneys don't have the time for it. But it really makes no law enforcement sense. I was trying to speak from a law enforcement point of view.
KING: Felons, not families was the slogan under the Obama administration. Do I have that right?
SALDANA: That's right.
KING: Mrs. Saldana, it's worth noting that immigrants' rights activists refer to President Obama, or did at the time, as the deporter in chief. Deportations peaked in 2012. And some of these pictures that were circulating on social media that appear to show migrant kids in cages were actually taken during the Obama administration. I wonder, do you think your team was in part responsible for setting up a system that left migrant children and families vulnerable?
SALDANA: You know, this is a massive undertaking - is taking care of children who have come across the border. This is not something historical. It is of recent vintage, beginning in 2014 with that tremendous influx of unaccompanied minors. We've been trying to get it right. We have been working with advocates and others to - we had been - to try to ensure that their concerns were addressed.
KING: Do you think that you did get it right at the time?
SALDANA: I think we're working towards it. I think we're working very hard towards it. And here is where I'll - not that the president needs defending, President Obama - but one thing he assured was that we all had conversation, deliberation, thoughtfulness about what we're doing. It was not a knee-jerk reaction. It wasn't a sudden impulse from one day to the next. It was thoughtful and organized, and we were doing our best. So we were definitely working towards improvement. There's always need for that. So I'm glad that I was a part of that administration.
KING: More than 15 ICE agents reportedly signed a letter to Department of Homeland Security Chief Kirstjen Nielsen calling for the agency to be shuttered. I thought that was really interesting. Quickly, do you think the mission of ICE has been muddled because of the emphasis on deportations?
SALDANA: It is. I've often - when I've spoken to people to try to inform them about what ICE is all about, I've often emphasized that we do extraordinary things besides immigration enforcement. And Homeland Security Investigations, our investigative arm, figures that out. So yes, I think it has been muddled.
KING: There's a lot of other things going on. Sarah Saldana was the director of ICE under President Obama. Thank you, Mrs. Saldana.
SALDANA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.