At Committee Hearing, Portman Highlights Need to Change Immigration Laws & Reduce Incentives for Migrants to Make Dangerous Journey to Southern Border
WASHINGTON, DC – At a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) discussed the ongoing humanitarian crisis at our southern border and stressed the importance of finding solutions that reduce incentives for migrants to make the dangerous journey to the southern border, often with traffickers and human smugglers. Portman recently visited the southern border where he saw the humanitarian crisis firsthand and described the visit in an op-ed in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Portman: “This is a tough issue, and what we have been trying to do on this committee is to look at it from an objective point of view and try to get some bipartisan solutions, particularly on the root causes. It has been hard. Honestly we don’t have consensus yet, and that is frustrating because I was down there on July 12, as I think you know, Commissioner and had the opportunity to go to the McAllen sector and see what was going on, went to the Donna Processing Facility and also the Customs and Border Protection processing facility there, the station. And you know it’s a bad situation. There’s obviously a huge influx of individuals but what’s really tough is the influx of families and kids, and that’s unprecedented. There’s been no previous time in our nation’s history we have had this many people coming across the border who are in family units and have to be taken care of differently.
“One of the things that was interesting at the Donna Processing Facility – and I think this is something that some of my constituents would have found surprising – the families I talked to and I spoke to five or six families, my Spanish is good enough to get by, and I asked them why are they here and how long they plan to be here. I also talked to the Border Patrol about that of course, Customs and Border Protection, and the honest answer is they expected to be released into the United States and the Customs and Border Protection people expected to release them within a few days. In fact for some of them within a couple of days I was told, and so that is the understanding on both sides. The reason is that they cannot be processed during the time period that we have, particularly if they have a minor child with them.
“So I mean, it’s pretty common sense. Unless we fix those laws, change those laws we are not going to be able to keep people in any kind of detention facility or processing facility long enough to be able to assess whether it is appropriate for them to come into the United States legally and so we are simply releasing them into the community.
“And the nonprofits are helping to ensure people have what they need when they leave the processing facility and get them on the buses and get them on the airplanes and take them to communities around the country. These people have been processed and they have been told to show up at a court hearing and some of them do and some of them don’t. Typically it takes a couple of years – actually between two and three years for the first hearing – and then typically five or six years we were told before the case is finally resolved and you can imagine during that time period, a lot of folks tend to stay in the United States and not show up at those hearings. Those numbers are hard to get in terms of how many show up. I don’t know if you have anything on that today, either one of you. The numbers I have heard is that fewer than half actually show up for the final hearing to be able to determine their status. Is that still accurate?”
U.S. Department of Homeland Security U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan: “That is accurate, sir. That is information that I have.”
Portman: “Jennifer, do you have any--Ms. Costello?”
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Deputy Inspector General Jennifer L. Costello: “We don’t have any information on that. That would be a [Department of] Justice statistic.”
Portman: “So today we are focused on the conditions at the border but I guess my point is this will continue and we are not going to be able to resolve it unless we come up with some common-sense solutions to a very obvious problem, which is traffickers going to poor families in Central America and saying, ‘If you come, if you’re willing to pay us $5,000 to $10,000 and come with us we can get you into the country. In fact, we don’t even have to do anything else other than leave you at the border.’ You walk across a bridge or in the case of some of the families I met across the river and present yourself and you can go into America.
“And when you can make 10 to 20 times more here in America than you can in your own country, it makes sense. You know, you and I would do the same thing probably if we were given the opportunity to help our families. But we have a legal immigration system and there are people waiting not just for months but for years in those same countries to come legally. So I don’t think the problem is really that hard to understand. The asylum issue on top of that obviously adds some complexity.
“In terms of the overcrowding that I saw and what I saw was overcrowding in the men’s facility at the Customs and Border Protection Processing Facility and the analogy that the Customs and Border Protection people were telling me which I think makes sense is this is more like the police station where you process people, but it’s not a detention facility. The detention facility is ICE-run and Congress and the $4.6 billion that we sent down to the border – which I think was absolutely necessary and I’m glad it’s there and it’s being used to help with the humanitarian crisis on the border. But Congress said, ‘No, we’re not going to fund these ICE beds.’ So I saw the report from the Inspector General, the OIG finding from your trip to the border, I imagine, Ms. Costello, your colleagues, it says, ‘Due to shortage of ICE beds, Border Patrol has had to hold detainees longer than 72 hours.’ That was one of your findings.”
Ms. Costello: “Yes, that’s accurate.”
Portman: “So it’s not that complicated. If we are not willing to fund ICE beds, and under Flores you can’t hold people for more than 20 days and you can’t process people during that time period, it leads to a bad situation. So you know, is everything perfect in the border? No, it’s not. There is overcrowding. Now, I will say at the Donna Facility, which is a soft-sided facility, we did not see the overcrowding. It’s a new facility. My understanding is you have a new processing facility for adult males. Is that up and going yet? I know you’re talking about putting a new one in place.”
Mr. Morgan: “It should be in the next 10 days, sir.”
Portman: “In the McAllen district as well. So I think that Congress has got a pretty obvious choice here, which is one, how to deal with the immediate crisis, provide the ICE beds, provide more judges, expedite these processes as much as you can, take away the ability for traffickers to say if you just walk in, you get in, otherwise this continues, and then second, we’ve got to look at the root causes and that does include our asylum system.
“I’ve been promoting this idea and some Democrats have expressed interest in this, in having people processed in their home country or in a third country. UNHCR, the United Nations, does it all over the world and they have four or five processing centers in Central America, they have one in Mexico, they’ve expressed some interest in working with us on that. That to me makes a lot of sense. It’s the same criteria as the asylum criteria, the credible fear. And then what the chairman has talked about in terms of expediting the processing, Operation Safe Return.
“And then finally, more effective aid to these countries because we have spent a lot of taxpayer dollars in the Northern Triangle. And obviously, the results have not been impressive in terms of the socioeconomic conditions and the great poverty that’s down there. There’s no question about that. We can do a better job. But we can’t address that problem and expect that someone, again, who can make 10 to 20 times more coming to this country is not going to continue to have that incentive, if in fact we have a system in place that allows them to come into our country. And on the asylum front, of course, people that have a credible fear ought to be taken care of.
“But when you get to the end of that process we talked about earlier after the four or five years, only 15 percent of those migrants are granted asylum. And that can be determined much earlier in the process, and preferably earlier in the process so they don’t have to make the long and arduous and dangerous journey north, which so many traffickers are exploiting so many poor families in Central America to take that journey. Anyway, thank you for your service, both of you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”