How is President Donald Trump’s immigration reform plan “good for America,” in the eyes of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton? What are the legal gaps in the system that prevent effective enforcement, and what is the current status of the Texas sanctuary city law?
Epoch Times senior editor Jan Jekielek sat down with Paxton to discuss the border crisis, human trafficking, immigration reform, including merit-based immigration, as well as Paxton’s approach to perceived federal overreach, voter ID laws, and voter fraud.
Jan Jekielek: So, let’s jump right into the crisis at the U.S. border. This is something that you’ve been vocal about in the past. What’s the state of things right now?
Ken Paxton: Worse and worse. More and more people coming across the border. We don’t have a wall, we don’t have enough border agents. We don’t have the technology in place to stop it. Congress hasn’t done their job in funding it over the years, and it’s showing up in a crisis at the border, with more people coming across than ever have.
Mr. Jekielek: Your state, obviously, is by far the longest border that we have. Do you have some specific examples that come to mind—cases that you’ve come across in your work?
Mr. Paxton: Yeah … you’re right. We do have about 65 percent of the total border. So, you know, obviously, Arizona, California, New Mexico are part of the border, but not nearly like we are. So it affects us more than any other state. We have seen … I’ve talked to families that have lost people as a result of crimes that have taken place, by those who come across illegally. There’s one family that lost their son to a murder and then the body was burned right after … and it’s really difficult talking to this family and then not really having a solution and not really have an answer for them except that, you know, our Congress won’t act.
Mr. Jekielek: That reminds me that our border reporter, Charlotte Cuthbertson, recently did a calculation in the realm of human smuggling and it’s apparently more than a $1 billion-a-year industry. Nevermind the drugs, nevermind those things. That’s also something that’s been on your mind a lot, and human trafficking.
Mr. Paxton: We started a human trafficking unit in my office after my first year. It took us a year to get it up and going and get the people hired. But the reason we probably did this is because of the problem at the border. It’s definitely having an impact … The more porous our border is, the more of a problem it is. We’re the second-worst state in the country for human trafficking. Houston is the worst city in America for human trafficking. So, is the border totally responsible? No, but it is to some degree having an impact on human trafficking, putting the lives of particularly young women at risk, and putting them in a really awful, terrible situation.
We as a state government have no authority to stop illegal immigration. It is a federal issue. There’s a U.S. Supreme Court case: Arizona v. United States. When Arizona tried to step in to allow states to respond when the federal government was abdicating its responsibility, they were told no by the Supreme Court. And so, today, there’s not much Texas can do. We can arrest people for violating state law, but if they are violating federal law and they’re crossing the border illegally, there’s nothing the states can do. And it’s really unfortunate because, for years, we’ve really had no support from the federal government. And I would add, fortunately, this president is at least trying to do something more than any other president I’ve seen.
Mr. Jekielek: So President Trump in his new initiative … I’ll just quote it. “As we close the gaps in our physical framework, we must also close the gaps in our legal framework.” Perhaps you could give us an overview of where those gaps lie in federal law?
Mr. Paxton: Well, part of it is this idea of chain migration: Just because you have family members here, you get sort of access to the country. I think the thing that he’s focused on is moving away from that and making it more about merit. What does our country need? What resources, what human capital will benefit this country? And I think he’s trying to focus on what’s good for America. What’s good for all of us? What’s the benefit? We can’t have our border open to every single person in the world that wants to come here. We just can’t absorb that many people. We can’t afford it. And so let’s make this something that benefits our country. I think that’s what he’s focused on.
Mr. Jekielek: So you support this, increasing the merit-based side of immigration?
Mr. Paxton: Every other country does that. Why? Because they have this odd idea that if they bring in people that help their country, that’ll actually make the country better. Well, we haven’t had that idea, but it’s not a bad idea. And there’s a reason every other country does it like that. We ought to be doing the same things.
Mr. Jekielek: What other legal gaps do you see—things that need to be addressed?
Mr. Paxton: Well, I think the … it’s really not a legal gap, but really it’s a function of the porous border. So we get the … just building the wall, finding more border agents, finding greater security. And then I think he hit the main legal gap, which is this idea that you just can come in. And I think the second one is the asylum issue. It’s become a loophole. Everybody knows what to say. They’re coached on how to get around the problem. I think that needs to be addressed by Congress so that we stop having people coming and abusing the system through the asylum process. And I’d say, third, is this whole issue of separating parents from children. You know, that was determined by a settlement that [President] Bill Clinton put together, long before Donald Trump was there, that said that kids can only stay in detention so long.
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Mr. Paxton: Now, you’ve created an incentive because you have to let the kids go, you have to let the parents go. Now you’ve created an incentive for people to come across the border with kids, and then you can’t detain them. So there’s that. And I also think the fact that the court system, at this point, doesn’t have the resources to deal with all the asylum cases. So something needs to be done about that system.
Mr. Jekielek: So, you’ve actually addressed the issue of sanctuary cities. There was this sanctuary city bill that was passed in Texas, and you jumped ahead of things to defend it. How are things up with that?
Mr. Paxton: So that went really well. … It didn’t start off really well. We filed in Travis County; the other side, the plaintiffs, filed in Bexar County. And, ultimately, we ended up in Bexar County, which we didn’t think that’s where we should be. But ultimately we were, and we lost. But then we appealed to the 5th Circuit. We asked for, basically, an emergency stay to stop the judge from getting rid of our laws. And, you know, we were in front of a fairly liberal panel—an Obama appointee, a Clinton appointee, and a Bush appointee. And they agreed with us 3–0 that that should be stayed. So we kept our law in place, we appealed it on the merits, and we ultimately were successful.
So we should have won that case. I don’t think that it’s going to be appealed by the other side.
Mr. Jekielek: So what is the significance of this law, in your mind, from what you’ve seen?
Mr. Paxton: Well, it sets consequences for cities determining that they’re not going to participate and help the federal government. If the federal government makes a request, and you are holding a convicted criminal or who is suspected of committing a crime, you are required, as a municipality or governmental entity, to participate and cooperate with the federal government. If you don’t, there are consequences. There are civil fines for the city or county, there are potential fines to the individual, and there are also consequences of potentially being removed from office for even the DAs (district attorneys). They have the authority to also bring a case for a violation of criminal law. So there are many consequences put in place by the legislature.
Mr. Jekielek: How is this being enforced now?
Mr. Paxton: … We had an issue with the city of San Antonio, the city manager of San Antonio, the police department of San Antonio, and the police chief, where they basically were ignoring this and releasing people. And we have an investigation going right now that I can’t comment on the specifics, but we have an investigation going on related to that case.
Mr. Jekielek: Wow. I hope you keep us updated.
Mr. Paxton: As we are able, we will.
This is a really challenging issue. I’ve been asked for authority to prosecute human trafficking. Right now, I don’t have any authority. I have to be referred by a DA. And our DAs—we have 254 counties. In 2016, they have prosecuted about 250 cases. We have thousands of cases. And so I’ve asked the legislature to give me a jurisdiction, joint jurisdiction, that gives them the authority to prosecute a case that they can or they want to, but then if they can’t, within a certain period of time, then I get to prosecute it. And it also gives me the ability to prosecute multi-jurisdictional cases. The DAs have said: No, no, no. We would rather let these guys off who are trafficking young women than let the AG prosecute these cases.
It is a pretty sad situation in my state. We’re still in the process … We got this bill out of the Senate. We had it on the House floor. They tried to gut it, by basically requiring that the DAs approve any case I get, which guts the whole bill. We’re hopeful that in the end, we’ll be successful, and the DAs will not be able to stop human traffickers from being prosecuted.
Mr. Jekielek: Why do you think they’re doing this? It sounds like a very odd position to take.
Mr. Paxton: It is an odd position. You’re basically prioritizing controlling all jurisdiction over actually solving the problem. Because we don’t even have enough resources. Assuming we are successful, and we are able to prosecute human traffickers, there’s still going to be thousands of prosecutions that aren’t done because we don’t have enough resources to do it all. They would prefer that we not prosecute those because that way, they can retain control over which cases are prosecuted. So at the expense of lots of young women, they would rather retain that sole authority to prosecute. It’s very Machiavellian and very, very sad.
Especially, when their job is to promote justice. That’s really what they’re supposed to do. And they would rather retain the sole power than share the authority. I’m not asking to take any of their cases. I only want to take the ones that they won’t or can’t do.
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Mr. Paxton: And there’s only, I think, in 2016, out of the 254 counties, only 18 counties had the resources to do anything about it. So there’s a lot of counties that don’t have the resources and that maybe don’t even start the investigation or don’t refer it to us, and we can’t make them refer it to us right now. We just have to let these people go. And the DAs of Texas have said: That’s fine. Let them go, just as so long as we can keep the sole authority to prosecute the few that we’re doing.
Mr. Jekielek: So you know, I read somewhere that it’s about 300,000 cases of human trafficking. Is that historically—
Mr. Paxton: We don’t know because this hasn’t been tracked for long, but that was, if I remember it, a UT study. So, you know, good. I applaud them for prosecuting 250 cases in a year. But that leaves us with many thousands more. And all I’m saying is: Let me have the opportunity to go after a few more. And they’re saying: No, let those people go. We want the sole power to do this.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s shift gears a little bit here. You’ve done a lot under the Obama administration, as I understand it. You’ve sued the Obama administration a number of times for … basically, to stop federal overreach. Where did this start?
Mr. Paxton: So this started before I got … AGs across the country, particularly not just Republicans, but some Democrats suing when the EPA, the Department of Labor, Homeland Security basically started making up laws. Instead of Obama working with Congress, when he lost Congress after two years, he decided: I’ll just make it up myself and let them stop me. And so the U.S. Congress could have defunded it; they didn’t. The courts could have slowed it down; they didn’t. So the state started suing. And I think from the time Obama left, we’ve had 27 cases in about 27 months. Some of those bled over into the Trump administration because they were Obama policies.
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Mr. Paxton: But once a month, we sued over from immigration to Department of Labor … you know, it’s different departments, but it was the same idea. The Obama administration—through either agency action, executive order, or guidelines—made up the law. That’s not what they’re supposed to do, it’s [up to] Congress. And they were acting outside of the Constitution, and some said: “Well, some of these policies are good. We like them,”—like DACA. And so we could have made exceptions, but then we’re outside of the Constitution, and we’ve set precedent for the president just making up law. Whether you like the policy or not, it’s a very bad precedent to let a president have that kind of power.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s a case recently where, I believe, it’s two committees—Ways and Means and, I think, Oversight—are looking to pull documents from the state as they’re asserting sovereignty. … Is this the same sort of issue?
Mr. Paxton: Yeah. So we had an issue with our secretary of state, and our state police had provided numbers to the secretary of state that turned out to be incorrect. And the secretary of state relied on these numbers. That was a list of people who are here illegally, and, apparently, our state police didn’t do a good job of vetting all of this. Some of them are accurate. And they referred it to us. We didn’t move forward because we weren’t sure the numbers were correct from our state police, because they had put out incorrect numbers before, and they kind of had a history of doing this. And so there were lawsuits and settlements over that.
Well, now, Congress—some committee of Congress—wants information on our representation of the secretary of state. We’re lawyers for the state. We have no obligation. Congress doesn’t oversee us or have oversight over our process or our legal relationships. We have attorney-client privilege, and we basically told them respectfully: “No, this is not your purview. You can oversee stuff that’s going on in the federal government, but the states are independent and sovereign, and we don’t have to comply.”
Mr. Jekielek: Why do you think they’re going after this info?
Mr. Paxton: It’s political. They’re trying to make hay out of incorrect numbers from our state police. I don’t think the secretary of state didn’t know that these numbers were not completely accurate. He was relying on that information. And it was a bureaucratic agency that wasn’t being run very well—that wasn’t doing their job—that made the mistake. Somebody relied on it, and it ended up resulting in an investigation of people who were actually citizens. In the end, I think the process will work out fine because none of those … but we never pursued anybody because we were not confident those numbers were right.
Mr. Jekielek: I see. There’s actually another lawsuit that you’re involved in. It’s around voter ID, and voter fraud, and so forth. How are things going there?
Mr. Paxton: Two different lawsuits. In the voter ID lawsuit, we were sued over a voter ID law. It was a law that I actually was part of passing, that actually requires that you show up with a photo ID to vote so that we can prove that you were the person voting. People—
Mr. Jekielek: This is when you were in the Senate, just to be clear to everyone.
Mr. Paxton: I was in the Texas House when we passed that.
Mr. Jekielek: The House, OK.
Mr. Paxton: I moved over to the Senate. But we passed it in 2011, I think. And, so, we defended that at my office, and I think people are used to accepting that photo IDs are used to, you know, all over the place from renting a car to whatever. I know that when I went down to hear the arguments on why photo ID was discriminatory in front of the 5th Circuit, I had to fly from Dallas to New Orleans and I had to use a photo ID to fly. I had to use a photo ID when I got to my hotel room.
The night before, I had to use a photo ID to get into the courtroom, where they were arguing whether photo ID for voting was discriminatory, but every other place, it was accepted as perfectly fine. And I think people logically know that makes sense. The discriminatory argument didn’t work, and we won. We were successful and it was a false argument. The only reason you need to eliminate photo IDs, if you were part of the process of committing fraud, you wouldn’t want a photo ID, because it helps eliminate fraud.
On top of that, we do have … the only thing I have criminal jurisdiction over is voter fraud, and we have prosecuted and pursued more cases in the past two years than have been probably prosecuted in the last 10 in the AG’s office, because there’s so much. We only had one attorney that the legislature gave us money for; I got a grant to get two. These guys are full-time busy. I’ve asked the legislature for more money. I’m pretty certain we can keep people busy for quite a long time.
Mr. Jekielek: So what do these cases look like typically? Is it just someone misrepresenting themselves or voting several times?
Mr. Paxton: Yeah. Some voting several times. Others are not citizens, and they’re voting. Some of them in multiple counties. We just arrested the mayor and his wife of Edinburg. He was elected, and we’re pretty sure the difference was voter fraud. He was registering all kinds of people that shouldn’t have been voting, and he just got arrested for it.
Mr. Jekielek: So there’s a case in point, I suppose. How prevalent is this in Texas?
Mr. Paxton: We think quite prevalent, and we think it’s quite prevalent across the nation. It’s definitely prevalent in Texas. But these cases take a lot of resources. You know, you’ve got to make … you’re talking about a criminal case, so you have to … you don’t want to prosecute somebody that you don’t know for sure has committed a crime. And so—
You have to build the evidence to actually get an indictment and then go to trial. All of that takes time and certainty that you have done your job, because you don’t want to prosecute somebody that has not violated the law. That’s a problem. It’s a waste of resources, and it’s a punishment for somebody that hasn’t committed a crime.
But we think there’s a lot of that going on, so it’s a matter of identifying it and then having the resources to go after it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.