On Senate Floor, Portman Urges Bipartisan Cooperation to Fix Asylum Problems at the Border

October 7, 2021 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, DC – Today on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) urged his colleagues to work together to fix the asylum problems at our border. While in Latin America earlier this year, he spoke to presidents from four different countries, all of whom said that United States’ asylum system was creating a pull factor for their citizens – current immigration practice allows for those seeking asylum to wait in the United States, sometimes up to four or five years, before going in front an immigration judge. On top of this, most don’t make their court appearance since there is no enforcement to appear. Portman urged a legal, orderly system that works for everybody and one in where the U.S. system encourages people to apply for asylum in their home country, and if they are not comfortable or unable to do so, to apply from a third country.

A transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.

“Mr. President, I just listened to my colleague from Texas talk about what’s going on at the border and I thought he made a lot of really good points and I appreciate his willingness not just to talk about this issue and the crisis we have on our southern border, but also to talk about solutions. And one of the solutions he talked about I’ve heard about a lot recently – I’m the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee – and in the last week I’ve had the opportunity to speak with both the current Border Patrol Chief and also the recently retired Border Patrol Chief about what’s happening on the border and the real world problems that its creating.

“One thing they tell me is just, ‘Let us finish the small parts of the wall that haven’t been completed because it is impossible for us to enforce the laws if you have these openings.’ The second they said is, ‘Please, let us complete the technology.’ On both sides of this aisle, we have agreed in the past that even if we disagree on having a fence along any parts of the border, including the urban areas, we agree on the technology that ought to go with it. And they tell me these stories that I had confirmed when I was down at the border earlier this year that the technology that goes with it, the remote sensing cameras, remote sensors in the ground and so on, were stopped as soon as the Biden administration came in even though they’re already paid for. So it wasn’t just stopping construction, it was, in effect, in my view, more important that they actually stopped the technology that’s needed to be able to protect the border.

“So Senator Cornyn talked about how he and Senator Sinema have worked on legislation to deal with some of these issues. I appreciate that, because that’s what’s needed. We need to make some changes. We can’t just continue to do what we’re doing because we have over 200,000 people a month now coming over, unprecedented numbers. Usually in the summer those numbers go down a lot, but they’ve actually increased this summer.

“We also need to fix a broken asylum system. This should not be a partisan issue. It’s obviously not working. People come to our border, they claim asylum, they’re allowed to come into the United States, they’re told, ‘Please go to an immigration office and check in but four, five years until your immigration case is likely to be heard, sometimes longer.’ Meanwhile these folks are in the United States. And then at the end of the process, even though those who end up going to the court system are self-selected because they’re the folks who I think are more likely to have an asylum claim that’s valid, but even when you go all the way through that process, guess what? Only 15 percent of those from countries like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador – the so-called Northern Triangle countries – or other countries like Ecuador, only 15 percent are granted asylum by an immigration judge. But meanwhile everybody is in the United States.

“And as was said earlier, the internal enforcement is not occurring so people are literally not being told they’ve got to go back, and often, obviously not identified because after four or five years many people are embedded in our communities. So the asylum system has become a pull factor. And we need to realize that.

“I was in four countries in Latin America earlier this year – Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Ecuador – and I heard from every one of the presidents in those countries the same thing – in different ways, but the same thing – which is, ‘You guys are pulling our people to your southern border, because the traffickers, the smugglers, the coyotes who are making all this money are coming to our families and saying, ‘Hey, come to the border. Give me 10,000 bucks and I’ll take your kids there. I can get them into school in the interior of the United States,’ and they’re right. Their narrative may not be exactly right,  I’m sure they exaggerate, but as a whole what they’re saying is correct. In other words, our system is so broken that these people who are exploiting poor people all over Latin America and elsewhere now, all over the world, are starting to come through our border in bigger numbers, are able to say, ‘If you come with me, I’ll get you in.’

“That’s because the asylum system is broken. So until we fix the asylum system, we can do everything else we’re talking about, but I don’t think this is going to work. By the way, when I talk to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle about this, when I talk to Secretary Mayorkas about it, they acknowledge this is broken. I mean, you have to. The 13,000 Haitians who just came into our country, who walked in, were given a bus ticket or plane ride and told, ‘Here is an immigration office, please check in.’ My understanding is the vast majority of those people had applied for asylum and we said, ‘Come on in’ and in four, five years their case may be heard. And if they come to that trial, many of them will be deemed, just as the Central Americans are deemed, to be economic refugees.

“Look, if you or I were in Central America and knew we could better ourselves and our family and take care of our kids by coming to the United States, wouldn’t we make the same decision? But don’t we also in the United States have an obligation to have an orderly, legal way to do that? And we have one. We are the most generous country in the world in terms of taking immigrants and I’m a strong supporter of the legal immigration system. But we’ve got to have a proper way to do it. It’s got to be legal.

“Otherwise, again, people are going to be exploited. This trip north is not a safe trip, it’s a dangerous trip and people die in the desert. These kids are not treated well – many are assaulted. I did a study on this when I was head of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. We did two reports. One was on kids who were taken into HHS custody at the border and then when they were sent out to their sponsors – because that’s what happens, you go to the Border Patrol, then HHS, and then your sent out to sponsors – you know who the sponsors were? The very traffickers who had brought them up, in this case from Guatemala, who were exploiting them. And those same traffickers took those kids and took them to an egg farm where they had to work 11, 12 hours a day, no school, paid little or nothing, living on bare mattresses underneath trailers. Finally, luckily, a local law enforcement official figured out what was going on and was able to save these kids, but that’s not a system we should want in America.

“We should want a legal, orderly system that works for everybody. By the way, including the many, many people around the word who are waiting in line patiently to come to the United States through legal means. So I hadn’t meant to talk about this today, but I appreciate the fact my colleague mentioned it and I do think it’s very important that on a bipartisan basis we put aside our political rhetoric on this and talk about solutions.

“I think we should go back to a system where we’re encouraging people to apply for asylum in their home country and second, to do it from third countries if they’re not comfortable doing it in their home country because they really are feeling persecuted for some reason, do it in a third country. Those agreements were in place during the Trump administration. They were starting to work. They’ve now been ended. And then if you come to the border, have the adjudication to be immediate. Let’s spend the money to have the processing centers there at the border so people aren’t waiting four, five, six years to go to their immigration hearing that they may or may not attend, as you can understand.

“Instead we ought to say, ‘You want to come as an asylee? Here’s the system. Your adjudication is going to occur right now.’ And for those who apply and are successful, which again is about 15 percent of people from the countries that are sending most of these migrants, then you would come in as an asylee and you would have the ability to be resettled legally and you’d have the ability to work. But if you’re one of the 85 percent, you’d be told ,’Sorry, you didn’t make the standards. You’ve got to go back home.’ And you can apply legally and here’s the way you do it.

“Wouldn’t that make more sense for our country? By the way, there’s now a backlog of 1.3 million people waiting for these asylum hearings, 1.3 million people. And it’s growing every day.”