At Hearing, Senator Portman Questions Experts on E-Verify, Protecting Unaccompanied Children at the Southern Border

April 9, 2019 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, D.C. At a Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee hearing this morning, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) questioned experts on whether requiring employers to verify employee work status through E-Verify would deter people from coming to the country illegally.  They confirmed that E-Verify would help reduce illegal immigration.  Sen. Portman has introduced a bill to require employers to use E-Verify nationwide.

 

He also asked the officials how they are working to ensure the safety and protection of unaccompanied children at the southern border. Since 2015, the Permanent Subcomittee on Investigations (PSI), chaired by Portman, has been conducting oversight of HHS’ program to place unaccompanied minors with sponsors in this country following reports that HHS placed eight unaccompanied minors with human traffickers who put those children into forced labor in Ohio.  PSI has documented its findings in two reports, one released on August 15, 2018 and the other on January 28, 2016.  Last year, Portman introduced bipartisan legislation – the Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act – which requires the Department of Health and Human Services to better care for and keep track of unaccompanied minors and ensure they appear at their immigration court proceedings.  He will re-introduce the legislation in this new Congress soon.

 

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

 

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Senator Portman: “These are difficult times aren’t they? All of you have been in this business for a long time, I looked at your resumes. You’ve probably have never experienced something quite like this. The influx of particularly families and kids, we’re in a crisis on the border. We certainly are. It’s worse in terms of families and kids than when President Obama called it so – a ‘crisis.’ So I appreciate what you’re doing. I have focused a lot on the pull factors, the push factors are also important. What we do with these Northern Triangle countries, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras is incredibly important. But that’s going to be a longer term prospect. Short term, I want to ask Mr. Karisch. Mr. Howe, Mr. Tubbs, do you believe that people that are coming here, family units and otherwise are coming here primarily for economic reasons? And primarily to get a job that pays better for their families?”

 

Rodolfo Karisch, Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Patrol Agent, U.S. Border Patrol: “Sir, based on what I’ve seen out in the field at this point in time, the vast majority are coming here for economic reasons or, of course, for family reunification. Not saying that there are not credible fear claims or asylum claims out there.”

 

Senator Portman: “And I’m not either, think that number is about 85 percent of those who seek asylum are not getting asylum because they can’t meet the criteria but my question to you is, do you think most folks are coming here for economic reasons?”

 

Mr. Karisch: “Yes.”

 

Senator Portman: “Mr. Howe?”

 

Randy Howe, Executive Director of Operations for Customs and Border Protection (CBP): “Agree, Senator. The same and the numbers prove that up to 85% are being declined.”

 

Senator Portman: “Mr. Tubbs?”

 

Timothy Tubbs, Deputy Special Agent in Charge, Homeland Security Investigations: “Yes, sir I would agree that they are coming here for economic reasons. Anytime we look at unaccompanied children or family units one of the things we look at specifically at HSI during our criminal investigations is to ensure that there is no family fraud. To look at the welfare of the child, that there’s no case where they’re put in a situation where there is child exploitation. It’s also a reason why we’ve increased our interior enforcement, because that really is a pull factor.”

 

Senator Portman: “Let me focus on that for a second. Would it surprise you to know that under our current e-verify system, one it’s not mandatory and two, often people can use a fake ID, a fraudulent ID, Social Security card or driver’s license. So we don’t have a system that’s effective to know who’s legal and who’s not, so that the employer can make that determination. That’s what we have now currently. Would you support a mandatory e-verify system so that we can help to reduce the magnet, the pull?”

 

Mr. Howe: “Absolutely, we would support that. Anything that would reduce the pull factor.”

 

Senator Portman: “Mr. Karisch?”

 

Mr. Karisch: “Yes.”

 

Senator Portman: “Mr. Tubbs?”

 

Mr. Tubbs: “Any tool that we get is going to help us greatly.”

 

Senator Portman: “We have a bipartisan proposal to do that. That is something that sometimes we miss in this conversation about the border, as important as it is to have a secure border.  When you have that kind of a pull factor, that kind of a magnet, people find a way, don’t they to get through, over, or around the border. Commander White, you and I have gotten to know one each other. I believe you are a compassionate person and I think you care a lot for these kids. I think you’ve been in a very tough situation. You’ve talked about that today. I know there’s now a discussion about reinstating the zero tolerance policy which led to the family separations you talked about earlier. What was the effect on ORR, the Office of Refugee Resettlement last year when the administration implemented the zero tolerance policy?”

 

Commander Jonathan White, Deputy Director for Children's Programs Office of Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “The effect of zero tolerance or other policies that resulted in separating children from family units, as a reminder the great majority of children who cross our border each day are accompanied. They’re part of family units. Most typically they are with a parent and they are accompanied. So the first thing that happened to the program was that the program’s capacity was overwhelmed. But say that sort of understates the severity of the harm because it was overwhelmed with children that we were not prepared to serve easily because ordinarily the great majority that we receive, about 80 percent of them are teenagers. But when you separate children from their parents we get babies, and toddlers, and other very young children. So as you know, of the 2,814 children, 107 of them were four years of age or younger. Our specific capacity that states have licensed to serve what we call tender age, under 12, and very young, five and under children, was exceeded. This puts these children at significant risk and of course, it also bears repeating, that separating children from their parents entails very significant risks of severe psychological harm to those children and that is an undisputed scientific fact.”

 

Portman: “Commander you also have a Ph.D. so you have some credibility in terms of understanding that dynamic, but let me ask you this. If we were to do it again tomorrow, you said earlier in your testimony that there was a systems breakdown, do we have the infrastructure the handle it? Yes or no?”

 

Commander White: “We have made improvements to our tracking. We do not have the capacity to receive that number of children nor do we have the capacity to serve them, nor is it possible to build a system that would prevent the mass traumatization of children.”

 

Portman: “Mr. Howe I think you would agree that your detention facilities are full right now. I’m talking about your broader detention facilities, not just for unaccompanied kids or kids who are separated. So we don’t have that capacity right now, that infrastructure, is that accurate?”

 

Mr. Howe: “Well at our ports of entry we don’t have long-term detention but at the end of the process through ICRU, yes we’re full.”

 

Portman: “By the way, Commander White, has anybody consulted with you about the idea of reinstating the Zero Tolerance policy?”

 

Commander White: “No. No, sir.”

 

Portman: “You get about 200-300 kids a day now coming in, unaccompanied kids. You’ve got about 12,000 kids in your care. You’re working on this court order to try and reunify kids, but I’m talking just about unaccompanied kids who come in. Let me ask you just briefly about your problem you’ve had getting sponsors. We’re very concerned here in this committee that you are sending kids out to sponsors who are traffickers. In one case in Ohio, as you know, the Marion Egg Farm Case we had kids who were literally given back to the traffickers who had brought them up from Guatemala and they abused these kids. There have been, by the way, seven indictments now in that case of traffickers. But let me ask you, how are you doing now with sponsors? I mean, we wanted to be sure that the sponsors were fingerprinted, that there was a way to understand who these people were so that we weren’t giving kids out to traffickers again. You put that into place. My understanding is that there was some concern about ICE and others following up with those individuals and therefore your sponsorship pretty much dried up. Now you have more sponsors coming back because in the appropriations bill I guess we said that ICE can’t follow up from an immigration perspective, is that accurate?  So tell us how this is working.”

 

Commander White: “So we continually adjust our case management vetting methods to try to find the right balance between safety and timeliness in discharge. We grossly failed in 2014 those children in that egg farm case. That lead to a revolutionary change inside the program about our standards. Our standards now are not comparable to what they were then.  But in 2017 I would submit that we actually pushed safety so far that it broke discharge and children stayed in care for an unprecedented average length of time. And our discharge rate, which is for every 100 children in care, how many get discharged every day, so that fell to below one percent. This is why the Torneo temporary influx facility was stood up. That was a direct consequence of a combination of separation and falling discharge rate. By making appropriate changes, including now with our current operational objective, we only do fingerprint background checks. We do all the other background checks on every sponsor, but we only do fingerprint background checks on parents if there’s another red flag. If there’s another indication of danger. Our discharge rate is back up to two percent, the average length of time for children in care continues but I want to be clear, we studied every case where we denied a discharge to a parent based on the fingerprints and we didn’t find cases where we did that on fingerprint only. We found the identified threats to those children’s safety through the numerous other methods we used through identity verification, relationship verification and child safety. We’re in a different world than we were in 2014, but we will continue to make changes as we need to balance safety and timeliness in discharge. Thank you sir.”

 

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