The following is a transcript of an interview with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Independent of Arizona, that aired on Feb. 4, 2024.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Joining us now from Scottsdale is one of the chief negotiators of that deal, Arizona independent Senator Kyrsten Sinema. And Senator, we want to note, this is your first official appearance on a Sunday show. And we thank you for being with us today.
KYRSTEN SINEMA: Well, good morning, Margaret. It’s great to be with you.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So you are one of the very few people who know the intricate details of this deal, since the text is still not public. But to execute this plan, are you going to need more than the $14 billion that President Biden has asked Congress for?
KYRSTEN SINEMA: Well, you know, that’s really a question for the heads of our appropriations committee, who are in the final stages of putting this bill together this afternoon. My job was to lead the negotiations for the border policy changes that we so desperately need. And that’s why I’ve worked with Senator Lankford and Senator Murphy over the last four months to create workable policy that makes dramatic but needed changes to both our asylum system and border policy.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You will need likely more personnel or funding to execute this, but in going to the specifics, you have said publicly, you are ending catch and release. That’s that practice of detaining migrants and then releasing them with the promise of a future court date. How will your plan work?
KYRSTEN SINEMA: Well, I’m so glad you’ve asked that question. Because look, we’ve all seen the images on television of what’s happening in Lukeville, Arizona, and in southern Texas, where large numbers of migrants are approaching the border, and being processed and kind of released into the country, sometimes with a piece of paper called a notice to appear, where they may see a judge in five, seven, 10 years, no one knows. Our law changes that and ends the practice of catch and release. So when people approach the border and say they want to enter our country to seek asylum, they will go into one of two situations. First, short term detention, which means we take them into custody, and we actually do an interview right then and there to determine if they meet the standard for asylum. For individuals who do not meet that standard, which by the way, Margaret, is most of the migrants who are coming to our country right now, they’ll be swiftly returned to their home country. And for folks that we can’t detain, like families, for instance, we’ll ensure that we’re supervising them over the course of just three months, and conduct that interview with that new higher standard, requiring them to show more proof early on about whether or not they qualify for asylum and return them to their country, if they do not have the evidence or the proof that they qualify for asylum.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So –
KYRSTEN SINEMA: – So we’ll no longer have people just entering the country, and maybe going to court in the next seven or 10 years. Instead, we’ll make swift justice, folks who do qualify for asylum will be on a rapid path, six months or less, to start a new life in America. And those who do not qualify will quickly be returned to their home countries.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So for those who are impoverished, for example, and say they’re just coming to America to have a better life, they’re in search of the American dream. They won’t qualify right? They will be turned away?
KYRSTEN SINEMA: That’s right, Margaret. Right now, individuals who want to come to America just to get a better life or to seek the American dream, to find work. Those are what we call economic migrants, they are not permitted to enter the country whenever they would like. And our new law will ensure that they can’t get into the country that they won’t get that notice to appear, they will not be allowed in through the border ports of entry, or between ports of entry, like we see down in Lukeville, they will be turned away and sent back to their home countries. Because they currently are exploiting the asylum system that’s being really managed by the cartels. We’re ending that system. We’re ending that loophole and ensuring that they cannot enter through that manner.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, there is some concern about Democrat– from Democrats that those individuals turned away would then in turn be exploited if they’re pushed back into Mexico and somehow mistreated. How are you going to alleviate democratic concerns about that?
KYRSTEN SINEMA: Well, that’s an important question, Margaret. The reality is, is that for the last several years cartels have used this loophole to exploit the system, telling folks from Latin and South America and really all over the world that they can come to America, claim asylum, and then gain access to the country. We are going to end that process by ending catch and release and requiring folks who do come to claim asylum to actually have their asylum claims determined quickly and fairly. And that will provide a disincentive for individuals to come to this country, really sacrificing so much in their lives for a path that no longer can be exploited. So we will believe that by quickly implementing this system, individuals who come for economic reasons, will learn very quickly that this is not a path to enter our country, and will not take the sometimes dangerous or treacherous trek to our border.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So you have said previously that the Biden administration does bear some responsibility for this crisis, and they should be held accountable for not implementing existing laws. So what actions are you asking the president to take independent of Congress? And if you, if, as you say, was an implementing existing law, what would be different with your new version of the law?
KYRSTEN SINEMA: Well, Margaret, our law actually requires the administration to implement these tools. So much has been talked about with the, as you know, the number of 5,000 people a day, right, we’ve all heard misinformation, and frankly, just kind of rumors, saying, well, the administration doesn’t have to shut down the border until you get to 5,000 crossers a day. Well, that’s not true. First of all, our law is catch and release. But when too many people approach the border, asking to come in seeking asylum, we’re now mandating that the government actually shut down the border, if those numbers get to 5,000 a day. But we’re permitting the government to actually shut down the border, when it only gets to 4,000 approaches a day. And the reason we’re doing that is because we want to be able to shut down the system when it gets overloaded. So we have enough time to process those asylum claims, whether it’s through detention, or whether it’s through supervision, like for families, we want enough time for the government to be able to process these asylum claims, and then turn folks away who do not qualify while settling people who do qualify. So we’ve placed provisions in the law that mandate the enforcement of each of these provisions of our law, and require the Biden administration and any future administration to actually implement this. So we’re requiring it, not permitting it. And that’s a key difference from existing immigration law.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Okay. And you just, I want to underscore your fact check there, because the claim has been repeated, including by Donald Trump, that there would be a minimum of 5,000 people let in per day, and you just explained why that is not factually accurate. But it has also been act– echoed by the Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson. I know you have said you have a line of communication open with him. He said on another network this morning, individual senators called, give me tips and offered things that are going on in the room. But he says he was left out of this entire process. Has he assured you that he’s going to put this bill on the floor?
KYRSTEN SINEMA: You know, I don’t know what Speaker Johnson will do when this bill gets out of the Senate. But what I do know is that for five months, my Republican colleagues had demanded and I think rightfully so, that we address this border crisis as part of a national security package. I agree. The crisis on our border is a national security threat. And this week, the Senate will begin to take action on a large national security package that includes a realistic, pragmatic, and the strongest solution to our border crisis in my lifetime. Now, as you know, Margaret, I was born and raised near the border here in Arizona. And so more than anyone, I know how important this is to securing our national security. So I feel confident that when our bill passes through the Senate and gets to the house, members of the House, including Speaker Johnson, will have had ample opportunity to read, understand the bill and ask questions and watch our debate in the Senate. And then they get to make a choice. Do you want to secure the border?
MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you believe Mike Johnson can be persuaded? In other words, I hear you saying, he hasn’t told you no?
KYRSTEN SINEMA: You know, I think everyone has an opportunity to be persuaded. And by persuaded Margaret I simply mean, read the legislation, understand how it works. These are powerful new tools that allow any administration, this one and future administrations to actually gain control of the border by changing the asylum system so that cartels can no longer exploit it. And by giving a powerful new tool to the government, that requires them to shut down the border during times of high traffic, when too many people are asking to come into the country to seek asylum. We are giving tools to this administration and future administrations to actually gain control of the border. This is an incredibly powerful tool. And I believe that when folks have the opportunity to read the legislation, and hear from groups like Border Patrol agents, ICE agents throughout the country, they will see how important this tool is for our administration to have. The reality is, Margaret, that while the current administration does bear responsibility for mishandling the border, we have to give new legal tools to the administration and hold them accountable to implement them—
KYRSTEN SINEMA: — in order to stop this crisis. I’m sorry?
MARGARET BRENNAN: What’s the timeline, by March? Because Senator Graham said, this isn’t gonna happen quickly.
KYRSTEN SINEMA: You know, I don’t control the timeline. That’s a question for the leadership in the Senate. What I do have the ability to control, is what I’ve done over the last four months, which is work in good faith with Senators Lankford and Senators Murphy, to craft a real solution to the border, the first one in my lifetime. And that’s what I’ll be focused in on, is making sure that colleagues in both the House and the Senate understand what this law will do, and see the difference that will make for our border security.
MARGARET BRENNAN: When we last spoke back in May, you told me that immigration was one of the most important issues for you, potentially in a second term, you have until April to decide whether to run for reelection, you would need about 42,000 signatures to qualify for that three way race. Have you decided? What’s holding you back, if you haven’t?
KYRSTEN SINEMA: Well, I understand you have to ask that question, Margaret. But I think folks across Arizona and the country know that when I decide I’m going to work on something that’s important for our state and for our nation, I stay focused on it. And I think that the endless questions about politics and elections are really exhausting. And it’s what makes Americans really hate politics. So what I’ve committed to my constituents is to stay laser focused on the policy, on actually solving real problems. And that’s what I’ve shown that I do and the work that I do in the United States Senate. And it’s what I’ll stay focused on in the coming weeks as we seek to pass this legislation and make a real difference for the lives of Arizonans. You know, Margaret, each time I visit border communities in my state, and I hear from folks, whether it’s in Bisbee, or Yuma or down in Oakville, they’re not asking about elections. They’re asking about their everyday lives, because this crisis faces us every single day. It’s not just a television show for us. It’s our daily lives.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Understood. Senator, thank you for walking us through the details. And we hope you’ll be back with us.