At Hearing, DHS Experts Back Portman Proposal to Use the Refugee Model to Address Humanitarian Crisis at the Southern Border

June 26, 2019 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, DC At a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing this morning, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) discussed the ongoing humanitarian and drug crisis currently happening at our southern border and asked experts at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about whether using the refugee model to vet individuals in their home country could better address the crisis at the border.  The DHS experts agreed.  Portman also pressed the witnesses on what more the federal government can do in order to assist in preventing the influx of deadly crystal meth from coming over the border and into American communities.

Excerpts of his questioning can be found below and a video can be found here:


Portman: “Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I was here earlier and had the opportunity to hear you, Mr. Hastings, and hear some of the discussion with my colleagues. Senator Johnson in particular, on what’s going on, on the border, and also from Senator Peters. And I think there is now a consensus, I certainly hope so, that we’re facing a crisis. It’s an immigration crisis, it’s also, by the way, a drug crisis impacting my home state of Ohio and every state represented in this dais. Crystal meth is now coming in unprecedented numbers, as an example. We already knew that heroin was coming in. Crystal meth is coming entirely from the Mexican border now, we’re told.

“It’s also a humanitarian crisis, there’s no question about it. The men and women who you represent are being put in an impossible position. I hope that every member of this body protects the right of American law enforcement to do their job and it’s a tough job but I think you’re doing it in a professional way and I know it’s difficult. I guess what I would like to focus on is solutions. I do think that there are some, potentially bipartisan solutions and I want to hear from you on it. One, that has always struck me as a reasonable approach that we should be taking, which was done under the Obama administration, is to have people apply from their home country. They would apply technically as refugees from their home country because you would claim asylum when you come in to the United States. The criteria are the same. The criteria that have to be met are the same that are eventually adjudicated over here. We’re finding about 15 percent of those who actually apply for asylum actually receive asylum. That number may not be entirely accurate going forward but the point is, most people who are applying are not receiving it. Why? Because they’re deemed, through our judicial system, to be economic refugees probably, and not meeting the criteria. But what if, we set up a system, as was done once again in the Obama administration, where people instead of being told by the traffickers you have to come in on this arduous journey and we’re going to mortgage your house for you, take your paycheck for the next half year and we’re going to take your kids because if you’re kids under the Flores decision you can’t be held in detention for more than 20 days. Instead, the traffickers had to say, ‘You have to apply here. You have to apply from country.’

“Now two things would have to happen. One, we’d have to raise the cap on refugees, which has been lowered during this administration and that’s been acknowledged. And it would require specifically, a cap to be raised for Central American countries. Second, we’d have to provide the resources although as you know, with refugee resettlement primarily that’s done through international bodies including the UN, refugee resettlement operations. So this is something that could be internationalized.   

“I’ve talked to a number of my colleagues on the Democratic side of the aisle about this. They haven’t said no. It certainly makes sense, as a part of an overall strategy, in my view. Now the pull factor is the fact that you can misuse our asylum system now. It’s also the fact that you can get a job here in America and make 10 to 20 times more than you can make in your home country. If I was in that situation or you were, you’d be tempted to do the same thing. It doesn’t make it right. One way to do this is to have people, instead of being told, ‘You have to make this journey up north,’ is to say, ‘You have to apply right here’ and let’s adjudicate these cases. Let’s provide the funding for it. Let’s use the United Nations and other international bodies. That reduces the flow in a substantial way. I just wonder if any of you, Assistant Director Nevano, you may have some thoughts on this, Mr. Howe, Mr. Hastings. But if you had any thoughts on this idea of going back to a system where people apply from their home country.”  

Gregory Nevano, Assistant Director for Investigative Programs, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: “Thank you for your question. I’m not as versed in that area but the argument that you make seems to make sense and I am familiar, back in my younger career, I actually did process refugees – a lot of Vietnamese and Russians back in the early 90s – and it was an effective system that worked so I could see the merits of that system and look forward to working with Congress, working with our partners, if that is something that is decided to try that out and see if something that could help stop this crisis.”                  

Portman: “I know you’re familiar with this but the criteria you use to determine whether someone was eligible for refugee status is the same criteria we use for the asylum status.”

Mr. Nevano: “It’s just a difference of the section of law. I believe it’s Section 207 of the INA and Section 208 of the INA is the difference but the statutes are very similar, like you mentioned, whether they apply here in the United States or apply outside of the United States.”   

Portman: “There’s also a requirement should someone receive refugee status that there’s assistance provided. Usually it’s through a private-sector entity but the federal government plays a role. Refugee resettlement, we’re all familiar with. So it’s a little different process but it keeps people from coming up to this border. It keeps the numbers we see here, hundreds a day, thousands a week, hundreds of thousands a month from coming up to our border. Instead they’re told, ‘If you want to apply for this status, you’ve got to do it back home.’ Mr. Howe, Mr. Hastings any thought on this? Is it common-sense?”

Randy Howe, Executive Director for Operations, U.S. Customs and Border Control: “Senator, I’m very intrigued by it. Yes, I think it’s probably common-sense. It reduces the pull factors. We’ll let your lawyers work out the details but if it can be done, it’s been done before and working with the State Department and our international partners, it just makes sense.”     

Portman: “Mr. Hastings?”

Brian S. Hastings, Chief, Law Enforcement Operations Directorate, U.S. Customs and Border Control: “Thank you, sir. I would welcome anything that allows our border control agents to get back to the primary mission of securing our borders and reduces the flow.”

Portman: “Your testimony earlier was striking to me when you were talking about the fact that 40 to 60 percent of your people have been pulled off their jobs, essentially, to deal with the humanitarian crisis. I understand why they’re doing it and they have to do it, but we want to be sure we’re providing the emergency care that so many of these migrants need. But that’s not their job. And that leads me to my final question, which is about the drug issue.

“When the border patrol is not on the border trying to detect and stop these illegal drugs from coming into our country that are killing people I represent, that creates a whole other crisis. It’s not on the border, it’s in Ohio. It’s in every state represented in this dais. And maybe Mr. Nevano you can talk a little about these transnational trafficking groups that are smuggling people, but also smuggling drugs at the same time. What can we do better to be able to detect and stop this poison from coming into our country? Crystal meth, you know back in the day we had meth labs in our states. People made meth in their basements or their homes and there were environmental problems with that obviously in addition to this poison being made that was harming our communities. You don’t see that anymore. Why? Because the crystal meth from Mexico, pure crystal meth, is so cheap and so powerful. I’m told by law enforcement in Columbus, Ohio it’s less expensive than buying marijuana on the streets now and it is killing people. So, Mr. Navano, what can we do to stop some of these drugs from coming in and how are they related to these transnational gangs that also get involved with trafficking people?”

Mr. Nevano: “Well I had the opportunity to testify before your committee before about the opioid addiction in the United States and I know that you are very well aware that we initiated a border enforcement security team in the state of Ohio and I know that you were present for. That’s a recent occurrence that we’re trying to stop the opioids flow into the state of Ohio, but our border enforcement security teams – we have 65 of them across the country – and those teams are crucial because it takes resources from state, local, and federal authorities to attack a problem. The more border enforcement security teams we have to tackle the drug problem, I think the better we can identify it. Also to continue our capacity building overseas. We have trained what we call transnational criminal investigative units. We have 16 of those stationed all across the country and all over the world and those individuals are dedicated and are our eyes and ears overseas to help provide us the intelligence and information to help execute the laws that we don’t have the authority ourselves to do so in the Central America areas, in Mexico, and the drug-producing countries. So we rely very heavily on our trained partners and our transnational criminal investigative units.”