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A new policy change by the Trump administration on May 7th has resulted in thousands of children being separated from their want-to-be-immigrant parents who crossed the U.S. southern border in the wrong location. In this episode, hear from officials in every branch of government involved to learn why this is happening, why it's proving to be so difficult to return the children to their parents, and what we can do to help this situation.Please Support Congressional Dish - Quick Links
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Letter to Representative/Senators
Jen's letter that she sent to her members of Congress. You are welcome to use this as you wish!Additional Reading
Report: Trump administration: Migrant families can be detained for more than 20 days by Tanya Ballard Brown, NPR, June 29, 2018.
Article: Federal judge enjoins separation of migrant children, orders family reunification by Devlin Barrett, Mike DeBonis, Nick Miroff and Isaac Stanley-Becker, The Washington Post, June 27, 2018.
Article: Trump aims to dismantle protections for immigrant kids and radically expand the family detention system by Ryan Devereaux, The Intercept, June 26, 2018.
Article: With prosecutions of parents suspended the status quo returns at the border, The Washington Post, June 25, 2018.
Article: Separated immigrant children are all over the U.S. now, far from parents who don't know where they are by Maria Sacchetti, Kevin Sieff and Marc Fisher, The Washington Post, June 24, 2018.
Article: U.S. officials separated him from his child then he was deported to El Salvador, The Washington Post, June 23, 2018.
Article: Yes, Obama separated families at the border, too by Franco Ordonez and Anita Kumar, McClatchy, Jue 21, 2018.
Report: Governor orders probe of abuse claims by immigrant children by Michael Bisecker, Jake Pearson and Garance Burke, AP News, June 21, 2018.
Report: Migrant children at the border - the facts by Graham Kates, CBS News, June 20, 2018.
Report: The facilities that are housing children separated from their parents by Andy Uhler and David Brancaccio, Marketplace, June 20, 2018.
- Article: How private contractors enable Trump's cruelties at the border by David Dayen, The Nation, June 20, 2018.
Article: Separating migrant families is barbaric. It's also what the U.S. has been doing to people of color for hundreds of years. by Shaun King, The Intercept, June 20, 2018.
Report: Trump's executive order on family separation: What it does and doesn't do by Richard Gonzales, NPR, June 20, 2018.
Report: U.S. announces its withdrawal from U.N. Human Rights Council by Colin Dwyer, NPR, June 19, 2018.
Article: Detainees in Oregon say they followed asylum process and were arrested by Conrad Wilson, OPB, June 19, 2018.
Report: Fact-checking family separation by Amrit Cheng, ACLU, June 19, 2018.
Article: The U.S. has taken more than 3,700 children from their parents - and has no plan for returning them by Ryan Devereaux, The Intercept, June 19, 2018.
Article: Exclusive: US officials lost track of nearly 6,000 unaccompanied migrant kids by Franco Ordonez and Anita Kumar, McClatchy, June 19, 2018.
Article: The government has no plan for reuniting the immigrant families it is tearing apart by Jonathan Blitzer, The New Yorker, June 18, 2018.
Report: U.N. rights chief tells U.S. to stop taking migrant children from parents by Nick Cumming-Bruce, The New York Times, June 18, 2018.
Article: Taking migrant children from parents is illegal, U.N. tells U.S. by Nick Cumming-Bruce, The New York Times, June 5, 2018.
Article: Parents, children ensnared in 'zero-tolerance' border prosecutions by Curt Prendergast and Perla Trevizo, Arizona Daily Star, May 28, 2018.
- Statement: By HHS Deputy Secretary on unaccompanied alien children program, HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan, HHS, May 28, 2018.
Report: Trump administration using contractors accused of abuse to detain undocumented children by TYT Investigates, TYT Network, May 28, 2018.
Testimony: Ronald D. Vitiello on Stopping the daily border caravan: Time to build a policy wall, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, May 22, 2018.
Report: ICE has already missed two detention reporting deadlines set by Congress in March, National Immigrant Justice Center, May 17, 2018.
Article: As Gaza death toll rises, Israeli tactics face scrutiny by Josef Federman, The Seattle Times, May 15, 2018.
News Report: Attorney General Sessions delivers remarks discussing the immigration enforcement actions of the Trump administration, Department of Justice, May 7, 2018.
Statement: Steven Wagner of Administration for Children and Families U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, April 26, 2018.
Article: Hundreds of immigrant children have been taken from parents at U.S. border by Caitlin Dickerson, The New York Times, April 20, 2018.
Article: Trump's first year has been the private prison industry's best by Lauren-Brooke "L.B" Eisen, Brennan Center for Justice, January 15, 2018.
Article: Private-prison giant, resurgent in Trump era, gathers at president's resort by Amy Brittain and Drew Harwell, The Washington Post, October 25, 2017.
Report: Trump administration warns that U.S. may pull out of U.N. Human Rights Council by Merrit Kennedy, NPR, June 6, 2017.
Article: Private prisons were thriving even before Trump was elected by Alice Speri, The Intercept, November 28, 2016.
Article: Mexican migrant kids swiftly sent back by Sandra Dibble, San Diego Union Tribune, July 12, 2014.
Article: Immigrant surge rooted in law to curb child trafficking by Carl Hulse, The New York Times, July 7, 2014.
Agency Details: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Human Rights First: The Flores Settlement
U.S. Department of Homeland Security: Organizational Chart
U.S. Customs and Border Protection: Southwest Border Migration FY2018
Witness: - Alex Azar - Health and Human Services Secretary
- 27:50 Senator Ron Wyden (OR): How many kids who were in your custody because of the zero-tolerance policy have been reunified with a parent or a relative? Alex Azar: So, I believe we have had a high of over 2,300 children that were separated from their parents as a result of the enforcement policy. We now have 2,047. Sen. Wyden: How many have been reunified? Azar: So, they would be unified with either parents or other relatives under our policy, so, of course if the parent remains in detention, unfortunately under rules that are set by Congress and the courts, they can’t be reunified while they’re in detention. Sen. Wyden: So is the answer zero? I mean, you have— Azar: No, no. No, we’ve had hundreds of children who had been separated who are now with—for instance, if there was a parent— Sen. Wyden: I want an— Azar: —parent who’s here in the country, they’d be with that parent. Sen. Wyden: I want to know about the children in your department’s custody. Azar: Yeah. Sen. Wyden: How many of them have been reunified? Azar: Well, that’s exactly what I’m saying. They had been placed with a parent or other relative who’s— Sen. Wyden: How many? Azar: —here in the United States. Sen. Wyden: How many? Azar: Several hundred. Sen. Wyden: Of the 2— Azar: Of the 2,300-plus that— Sen. Wyden: Okay. Azar: —came into our care. Sen. Wyden: How many— Azar: Probably of 2,047.
- 49:20 Senator Ben Nelson (FL): So, what is the plan to reunite 2,300 children? Alex Azar: Absolutely. So, the first thing we need to do is, for any of the parents, we have to confirm parentage. So that’s part of the process. With any child in our care, we have to ensure—there are traffickers; there are smugglers; there’re, frankly, just some bad people occasionally—we have to ensure that the parentage is confirmed. We have to vet those parents to ensure there’s no criminality or violent history on them. That’s part of the regular process for any placement with an individual. At that point, they’ll be ready to be reconnected to their parents. This is where our very broken immigration laws come into play. We’re not allowed to have a child be with the parent who is in custody of the Department of Homeland Security for more than 20 days, and so until we can get Congress to change that law to—the forcible separation there of the family units—we’ll hold them or place them with another family relative in the United States. But we are working to get all these kids ready to be placed back with their parents, get that all cleared up, as soon as—if Congress passes a change or if those parents complete their immigration proceedings, we can then reunify.
- 1:11:52 Alex Azar: If Congress doesn’t change the 20-day limit on family unification, then it depends on—the process for any individual parent going through their immigration proceedings, as long as they’re in detention, they can’t be together for more than 20 days—absurdly, but it is the case.
- 2:03:31 Senator Ron Wyden (OR): You told me a little bit ago that the Department has 2,047 kids in its custody, so— Alex Azar: That are separated. We’ve got about 12,000 unaccompanied minors in our program.
- Lee Francis Cissna - Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security
- 17:17 Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA): Citizenship should not be for sale like a commodity on the stock exchange. There are millions—in fact, 4 million—of individuals who are waiting in line to immigrate lawfully to the United States. They have paid their required fees, they are in line, they wait patiently for a day that a visa becomes available, so they can be reunited with their families here in this country. However, because they don’t have a half a million dollars to buy their way in, they will continue to wait, some as long as 24 years. Yet, under the EB-5 system, the wealthy can cut to the front of the line.
- 49:45 Lee Francis Cissna: I did not play any role in deciding whether there was going to be a zero-tolerance initiative. What I recommended was, since there is one, what we need to do is decide which cases to refer in fulfillment of the zero-tolerance initiative directed by the attorney general, and I suggested that—I and the other officials who were involved in these discussions suggested that we refer all cases. Senator Dick Durbin: All cases. Cissna: Yes. Anybody who violates 8 U.S.C. 1325(a) will be prosecuted. Sen. Durbin: Which is—simply presenting themselves illegally at the border, without legal authorization at our border. Is that what you’re saying? Cissna: Between ports of entry, yes. Sen. Durbin: And you’re not just limiting this to those who may have committed some other crime, involved in some activity dangerous to the United States, but merely presenting themselves at these places is enough for you to believe this administration should treat them as criminals and remove their children. Cissna: I believe anyone crossing the border illegally who is apprehended doing so, whether they’re presenting themselves or not presenting themselves or trying to evade capture, if they are apprehended, they’re violating the law and should be prosecuted. Sen. Durbin: But if a person came to this border, seeking asylum— Cissna: Mm-hmm. Sen. Durbin: —is that person per se a criminal? Cissna: If they cross illegally, yes. Sen. Durbin: The premise was they presented themselves. Cissna: If they present themselves at the port of entry, no.
- 57:58 Senator Mazie Hirono (HI): So there are two ways that 1325 violations can proceed: either as a civil matter, which is what was happening with the Obama administration, that did not require separating children from their parents; or you can go the criminal route, and this administration have chosen the criminal route. Isn’t that correct? Lee Francis Cissna: Well, I would have to defer to DOJ on the appropriate interpretation of 1325, but as I read it, it looks like a misdemeanor to me, and, therefore, would be a criminal— Sen. Hirono: Well, I’m reading the statute right here, and it says that it can be considered as a civil penalty’s provision; under civil, not criminal. That’s what the plain meaning of that section says to me that I’m reading right now. So, this administration has chosen to follow the criminal route, and that is the excuse, or that is the rationale, being given for why children have to be separated at the border. Now, you did not have to go that route, and in fact, from your testimony, you sound really proud that this administration has a zero-tolerance policy that is resulting in children being separated from their parents. Am I reading you wrong? You think that this is a perfectly—humane route to go to implement Section 1325? Cissna: It’s the law. I’m proud of it, yeah. Sen. Hirono: No, the law, this law allows for a civil process, and you are attributing _____(01:27). Cissna: I’m not sure that interpretation is correct, and I would, again, defer to DOJ for the final answer.
- 1:10:30 Senator Sheldon Whitehouse: So, asylum seekers. They’re often refugees, correct? Lee Francis Cissna: Asylum seekers fall into the same definition of refugee at 101(a) (42), yeah. Sen. Whitehouse: Yep. And they often have very little in the way of resources, they’re often frightened, correct? Cissna: Yes. Sen. Whitehouse: Very few have legal degrees or are familiar with the United States’ immigration law, correct? Cissna: Yes. Sen. Whitehouse: And so if you’re a lost and frightened refugee and you see the U.S. border and you think, ah, this is my chance to get across to safety—which has long been something that our country’s been associated with—there could be a perfectly innocent reason for crossing the border in that location. And in that circumstance, would it not be perfectly reasonable for immigration officials who intercept them to say, “Ah, you seem to be a legitimate asylum seeker; you’re just in the wrong place. We’ll take you to the port of entry, and you can join the other asylum seekers at the port of entry”? But to arrest them and separate them from their children is a different choice, correct? Cissna: Well, I think if the person is already at that point where they’re apprehended and making their asylum case known, they’ve already crossed into the country illegally. If they’ve already crossed the border and made their asylum claim, they’ve already violated the law. They violated 1325. They’re here illegally. Sen. Whitehouse: Because they crossed in the wrong place. Cissna: Correct. Sen. Whitehouse: And they may not know that it’s illegal to cross in the wrong place, correct? They may simply be coming here because they’re poor and frightened and seeking safety, and for a long time, that’s what the United States has been a symbol of, has it not? Cissna: I cannot get into the minds of the people that are crossing the border illegally, but it seems to be— Sen. Whitehouse: But it is a clear possibility that there could be an innocent explanation for crossing the border as an asylum seeker at a place other than an established port of entry. Cissna: There might be. *Sen. Whitehouse: Okay. There you go. Cissna: Maybe.
- 1:36:13 Senator Chuck Grassley (IA): Do you think the administration would support repeal of Flores? Lee Francis Cissna: That is indeed one of the things that Secretary Nielsen spoke about yesterday, repeal Flores, but also you need to give ICE enough funds to be able to hold the family units once you’ve repealed Flores.
- Ronald Vitiello - Acting Deputy Commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection
- Lee Francis Cissna - Director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services
- Thomas Homan - Acting Director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement
- 15:10 Ronald Vitiello: In accordance with the Department of Justice zero-tolerance policy, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen has directed CBP to refer all illegal border crossers for criminal prosecution. CBP will enforce immigration laws set forth by Congress. No classes or categories of aliens are exempt from enforcement.
- 15:48 Ronald Vitiello: The effort and hours used to detain, process, care for, hold UACs and family units distracts our law-enforcement-officer deployments, shrinks our capability to control the border, and make the arrest of smugglers and drug traffickers and criminals much more difficult.
- 37:40 Ronald Vitiello: Between the ports, we’re now referring anybody that crosses the border illegally—so, Border Patrol’s referring 100% of the people that cross the border illegally—to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. At the ports, that’s not an illegal act if they come under the same conditions, but the verification of family relationships is essentially the same in both instances. Representative Filemon Vela (TX): So, with this new policy in place, at the point that you’re in a situation where you decide to separate the families, where do the minors go? Vitiello: The decision is to prosecute 100%. If that happens to be a family member, then HHS would then take care of the minor as an unaccompanied child.
- 39:58 Thomas Homan: As far as the detention capacity, we’re well aware of that. We’re working with U.S. marshals and DOJ on identifying available detention space. I got my staff working on that, along with the department and DOJ, so I think it’ll be addressed. We want to make sure we don’t get back to catch and release, so we’re identifying available beds throughout the country that we can use. As far as the question on HHS, under the Homeland Security Act 2002, we’re required, both the Border Patrol and ICE, to release unaccompanied children to HHS within 72 hours. So, we simply—once they identify within that 72 hours a bed someplace in the country, our job is to get that child to that bed. Then HHS, their responsibility is to reunite that child sometime with a parent and make sure that child gets released to a sponsor that’s being vetted.
- 41:33 Thomas Homan: If they show up at a port of entry made through asylum claims, they won’t be prosecuted, and they won’t be separated. The department has no policy just to separate families for a deterrence issue. I mean, they’re separating families for two reasons. Number one, they can’t prove the relationship—and we’ve had many cases where children had been trafficked by people that weren’t their parents, and we’re concerned about the child. The other issues are when they’re prosecuted, then they’re separated.
- 1:39:44 Representative Martha McSally (AZ): To summarize, some of those loopholes that we have been working together with you to close, the first is to raise the standard of the initial asylum interview that happens at the border, which is so low that nearly everybody can make it through. The second is to hold individuals as long as it takes for them to have due process in order to process their claim. The third is to make it inadmissible in our country if you are a serious criminal or gang or a gang member or a terrorist, which I cannot believe isn’t a part of the law, but we actually have to change that law. The fourth is to have a swift removal of you if you are denied in your claim. The fifth is to terminate your asylum, if you were to get it, if you return back to your country without any material change in the conditions there. Clearly, if you’re afraid for your life but you go back to visit, then something’s not right there, so your asylum should be considered for termination. The sixth is that there could be an expeditious return of unaccompanied minors to non-contiguous countries so that we can swiftly return them just like we can to Mexico. And the last is to increase the penalties for false asylum claims in order to deter and hold people accountable if they file for those. Is that a good summary of many of the loopholes we’re talking about today? Ronald Vitiello: Agree. Yes. Rep. McSally: Thank you. These all are in our bill, the Secure America’s Future Act. These are common-sense reforms that will keep our country safe and keep our communities safe, and I just want to encourage—don’t have any members left here—all members on both sides of the aisle, look at our bill, read our bill, study our bill.
- Kirstjen Nielsen - Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security
- 14:00 Kirstjen Nielsen: If you try to enter our country without authorization, you’ve broken the law. The attorney general has declared that we will have zero tolerance for all illegal border crossings, and I stand by that. Anyone crossing the border illegally or filing a fraudulent asylum claim will be detained, referred for criminal prosecution, and removed from the United States, as appropriate.
- 36:45 Senator John Hoeven (ND): You know, when you do detain, apprehend, unaccompanied children coming across the border, as well as others, what are you doing to try to address the adjudication process, which is such a bottleneck in terms of trying to address this issue? You know, I know you’re short there. What can you do and what are you doing to try to adjudicate these individuals? Kirstjen Nielsen: So, as I continue to find out every day, our immigration process is very complex, as you well know, and involves many, many departments. What we’ve tried to do is look at it from an end-to-end approach. So in the example you just gave, there’s actually about three or four different processes that those groups would undertake. So in some cases we need additional immigration judges—DOJ’s working on that. In some cases we need additional processes and agreements with other parts of the interagency family—we’ve done that, for example, with HHS to make sure that we’re appropriately taking care of UACs in their custody. And then there’s other parts who, depending on if they’re referred for prosecution, we hand them over to the marshals—we want to make sure that that’s a process that works. And then in some cases we use alternates to detention. As you know, rather than detaining them, we will have check-ins; in some cases, ankle bracelets; but other ways to make sure that we have them detained while they’re awaiting their removal proceedings. Sen. Hoeven: Is that working? Nielsen: It does work. It does work. It’s a good combination. We do it on a case-by-case basis. There’s lots of criteria that we look at to determine when that’s appropriate and when that’s not appropriate. But, again, I think it’s some of the opening remarks perhaps the chairman made, if you look at UACs, 66% of those who receive final orders, receive the final orders purely because they never showed up for court. And we find that we’re only able to remove 3.5% of those who should be removed, who a judge has said has a final. So, if we can track them, it’s a much more efficient process while we wait for the final adjudication.
- 55:58 Senator Kamala Harris (CA): I also asked that I be provided with what training and procedures are being given to CBP officers as it relates to how they are instructed to carry out family separation. I’ve not received that information. Do you have that today? Kirstjen Nielsen: No. You have not asked me for it, so I do not have it, but— Sen. Harris: No, I asked you for it. Nielsen: —I’m happy to give it to you. Sen. Harris: Okay. So, again, by the end of next week, please. Nielsen: Can you explain a little more what you’re looking for? Sen. Harris: Sure. So, your agency will be separating children from their parents, and I would assume— Nielsen: No. What we’ll be doing is prosecuting parents who’ve broken the law, just as we do every day in the United States of America. Sen. Harris: I can appreciate that, but if that parent has a four-year-old child, what do you plan on doing with that child? Nielsen: The child, under law, goes to HHS for care and custody. Sen. Harris: They will be separated from their parent. Answer my question. Nielsen: Just like we do in the United States every day. Sen. Harris: So, they will be separated from their parent. And my question, then, is, when you are separating children from their parents, do you have a protocol in place about how that should be done? And are you training the people who will actually remove a child from their parent on how to do that in the least-traumatic way? I would hope you do train on how to do that. And so the question is, and the request has been, to give us the information about how you are training and what the protocols are for separating a child from their parent. Nielsen: I’m happy to provide you with the training information. Sen. Harris: Thank you.
- 57:25 Senator Kamala Harris (CA): And what steps are being taken, if you can tell me, to ensure that once separated, parent and child, that there will be an opportunity to at least sustain communication between the parent and their child? Kirstjen Nielsen: The children are at HHS, but I’m happy to work with HHS to get you an answer for that.
- 1:57:50 Senator Kamala Harris (CA): Regarding detention conditions. Secretary, are you aware that multiple federal oversight bodies, such as the OIG and the GAO, have documented medical negligence of immigrants in the detention system, in particular that ICE has reported 170 deaths in their custody since 2003? Are you familiar with that? Kirstjen Nielsen: No, ma’am. Sen. Harris: Are you aware that they also found that pregnant women in particular receive insufficient medical attention while in custody, resulting in dehydration and even miscarriages? Nielsen: I do not believe that is a current assessment of our detention facilities. Sen. Harris: Okay. Can you please submit to this committee a current assessment? Nielsen: Yeah, I’m happy to. Sen. Harris: On that point? Nielsen: So, we provide neonatal care. We do pregnancy screening from ages 15 to 56. We provide outside specialists should you seek it. We do not detain any women past their third trimester. Once they enter their third trimester, we provide them separate housing. So, yes, we’re happy to detail all of the things we do to take good care of them. Sen. Harris: And did you submit that to the OIG in response to their findings? Nielsen: We have been in—yes, of course—working in conjunction with the OIG. I’m not sure exactly what the date is of the OIG report that you’re referencing, but I will look into it after this. Sen. Harris: Okay. And then also, between fiscal year ’12 and March of 2018, it’s our understanding—before I go on—the OIG report is from December of this past year, 2017. So it’s very recent. Five months ago? Also between FY ’12 and March 2018, ICE received, according to these reports, 1,448 allegations of sexual abuse in detention facilities, and only a small percent of these claims have been investigated by DHS, OIG. Are you familiar with that? Nielsen: I’m not familiar with that number, no.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions Today we are here to send a message to the world: we are not going to let this country be overwhelmed. People are not going to caravan or otherwise stampede our border. We need legality and integrity in the system. That’s why the Department of Homeland Security is now referring 100 percent of illegal Southwest Border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution. And the Department of Justice will take up those cases. I have put in place a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border. If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions - In order to carry out these important new enforcement policies, I have sent 35 prosecutors to the Southwest and moved 18 immigration judges to the border. These are supervisory judges that don’t have existing caseloads and will be able to function full time on moving these cases. That will be about a 50 percent increase in the number of immigration judges who will be handling the asylum claims."Hearing: Oversight of HHS and DHS Efforts to Protect Unaccompanied Alien Children from Human Trafficking and Abuse, U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, April 26, 2018.
- James McCament - Deputy Under Secretary of the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans at the Dept. of Homeland Security
- Steven Wagner - Acting Assistant Secratary for Administration for Children and Facilities at the Dept. of Health and Human Services
- Kathryn Larin - Director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security Team at the U.S. Government Accountability Office
- 15:47 Senator Rob Portman (OH): In 2015, I learned the story of eight unaccompanied minors from Guatemala who crossed our southern border. A ring of human traffickers had lured them to the United States. They’d actually gone to Guatemala and told their parents that they would provide them education in America and to pay for the children’s smuggling debt. The parents actually gave the traffickers the deeds to their homes. And the traffickers retained those until the children could work off that debt, because they weren’t interested in giving them education, it turned out; they were interested in trafficking them. When the children crossed our border, their status, as defined by federal immigration law, was that of an unaccompanied alien child, or a UAC, so you hear the term UAC used today. The Department of Homeland Security picked them up, and following protocol, transferred them to Department of Health and Human Services. HHS was then supposed to place these children with sponsors who would keep them safe until they could go through the appropriate immigration legal proceedings. That’s practice. That didn’t happen. What did happen is that HHS released these children back into the custody of those human traffickers without vetting them. Let me repeat. HHS actually placed these children back in the hands the traffickers. The traffickers then took them to an egg farm in Marion, Ohio, where these children lived in squalid conditions and were forced to work 12 hours a day, six, seven days a week, for more than a year. The traffickers threatened the children and their families with physical harm and even death if the children didn’t perform these long hours. This subcommittee investigated. We found HHS didn’t do background checks on the sponsors. HHS didn’t respond to red flags that should have alerted them to problems with the sponsors. For example, HHS missed that a group of sponsors were collecting multiple UACs, not just one child but multiple children. HHS didn’t do anything when a social worker provided help for one of those children, or tried to at least, and the sponsor turned the social worker away. During the investigation, we held a hearing in January 2016—so this goes back a couple years—where HHS committed to do better, understanding that this was a major problem. 2016, of course that was during the Obama administration, so this has gone on through two administrations now. HHS committed to clarifying the Department of Homeland Security and HHS responsibilities for protecting these children. HHS and DHS entered into a three-page memorandum of agreement, which said that the agencies recognized they should ensure that these unaccompanied alien children weren’t abused or trafficked. The agreement said the agencies would enter into a detailed joint concept of operations—so an agreement that’d actually lay out their responsibilities—that would spell out what the agencies would do to fix the problems. HHS and DHS gave themselves a deadline of February 2017 to have this joint concept of operations pulled together. That seemed like plenty of time to do it, but it wasn’t done, and that was over a year ago, February 2017. It’s now April 2018. We don’t have that joint concept of operations—so-called JCO—and despite repeated questions from Senator Carper and from me as well as our staffs over the past year, we don’t have any answers about why we don’t have the joint concept of operations. In fact, at a recent meeting a DHS official asked our investigators why we even cared about a JCO, why. And let me be clear: we care about the JCO because we care that we have a plan in place to protect these kids when they are in government custody. We care because the Government Accountability Office has said that DHS has sent children to the wrong facility because of miscommunications with HHS, and because of other concerns. We care because the agencies themselves thought it was important enough to set a deadline for the JCO but then blew past that date. We care because these kids, regardless of immigration status, deserve to be properly treated, not abused or trafficked. We learned at 4 p.m. yesterday that 13 days ago there was an additional memorandum of agreement reached between the two agencies. We requested and finally received a copy of that new agreement at midnight last night. It’s not the JCO that we’ve been waiting for, but it is a more general statement of how information will be shared between the two agencies. Frankly, we had assumed this information was already being shared and maybe it was, and it’s positive that we have this additional memorandum—that’s great. It’s nice that this hearing motivated that to happen, but it’s not the JCO we’ve all been waiting for.
- 45:05 Kathryn Larin: In 2015, we reported that the interagency process to refer unaccompanied children from DHS to ORR shelters was inefficient and vulnerable to error. We recommended that DHS and HHS develop a joint collaborative process for the referral and placement of unaccompanied children. In response, the agencies recently developed a memorandum of agreement that provides a framework for coordinating responsibilities. However, it is still under review and has not yet been implemented.
- 1:27:34 Senator Heidi Heitkamp (ND): It’s HHS. This is not a new problem. We’ve been at this a long time. Where are these kids, why don’t we know where they are, and how come after months of investigation by this committee we don’t seem to be getting any better answers, Mr. Wagner? Steven Wagner: The answer to your question depends on what sort of timeframe you’re talking about. If you’re talking about the 30 days after release to a sponsor that we have determined to be qualified to provide for the care and safety and wellbeing of the kid, I think in the vast majority, I think we’re getting pretty close to 100% of those cases we know where they are. When you’re talking about as time goes on, things change. Yes, kids run away. No, we do not have a capacity for tracking down runaway UACs who leave their sponsors. Sen. Heitkamp: What do you think would happen in the IV-E program—the IV-E program is a federally sponsored funding for foster care that the states access to pay for foster-care kids. That’s IV-E. In order to get that money, you have to be a responsible state and know. What would happen, do you think, with IV-E dollars in a state that said, you know, we know where they are. We turned them over to a foster parent. We didn’t do any—I mean, as we know, not a lot of home visits, not a lot of followup. And if they ran away, we don’t know. What do you think you guys would do with the IV-E program in a state that had that kind of response? Wagner: Senator, you’re constructing an additional legal responsibility, which, in our view, does not currently exist with the UAC program. Our legal responsibility is to place these children in suitable households. In the IV-E program— Sen. Heitkamp: And then forget about. Wagner: —it would be a crisis. And there is—every state has a child-protective service agency to deal with those situations. We don’t have that apparatus. Sen. Heitkamp: And so if they—and you have no intention of creating that apparatus. You have no intention of having a database—I do need to understand where you think your lines of jurisdiction are. So you have no intention of ever trying to solve the problem of, here we gave the kid to the guy who said he was her uncle. We gave them to the uncle, and we found that was okay. And now we told the state maybe, or we didn’t tell the state, and good luck to that 15-year-old who went to her uncle. Wagner: I don’t agree with your characterization of the decision-making process. However, you know, this is an expensive program. Our duty is to execute the will of Congress and the president, which we will do faithfully. Sen. Heitkamp: Well, I think our duty is— Wagner: If you tell us you want us to track down— Sen. Heitkamp: I think our duty is a little more humanitarian than that, but can you tell me that in every case you notify the state agency that you have placed a minor in the custody of a suitable sponsor? Wagner: No, Senator. Sen. Heitkamp: Yeah. Wagner: It’s not our procedure to place state— Sen. Heitkamp: But you’re telling me that the backdrop—you’re telling me that the backdrop, the protection for that kid now falls on the state, even though you don’t even give the state the courtesy of telling them where they are.
- 1:51:28 Senator Rob Portman (OH): Let me back up for a second if I could and talk about what I said at the outset which is this hearing is an opportunity for us to try to get more accountability in the system and to tighten up the loose ends, and we’ve heard so many today, the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. And, of course, the focus has been on this joint concept of operations. Because of that, we’ve been working on this with you all for 26 months, over two years. And, again, you promised in your own memorandum of agreement that you would have that completed over a year ago, and still, as of today, it’s not completed. I appreciate that Mr. Wagner said that—and true, at midnight last night we received this additional memorandum of agreement, and I do think information sharing is a good thing, but what we’re looking for is what I thought you were looking for, which is an understanding of how this is actually going to operate and who’s accountable. Because we don’t know who’s responsible and accountable and what the plans are, it’s impossible for us to do our oversight and for us in the end of the day to be sure that this system is working properly for the kids but also for immigration system. So I would ask you today, it’s been 14 months since you promised it, do you have it with you today? Yes or no. Mr. McCament? James McCament: I do not have it with me, ______(01:11). Sen. Portman: Mr. Wagner. Steven Wagner: No, sir. Sen. Portman: Okay. What’s your commitment to getting this done now? So we’re 26 months into it. We’ve over a year past your previous commitment. What’s your commitment you’re going to make to us today as to when this joint concept of operations agreement will be completed? Mr. McCament. McCament: Mr. Chairman, when—being apprised and learning about the significant amount of time, we will be ready as partnership with HHS. As soon as we look at, receive the draft back, we’ll work as expeditiously as possible. I know that that is not to the extent of a time line, but I will tell you that we are ready, and we want to partner actively. You are correct that the MOA is part of that commitment—it is not all. The JCO memorializes our procedures that we already do, but it does not have them collated in one place. Work as expeditiously as possible _____(02:07). Sen. Portman: You make it sound so simple, and you’re also pointing the finger at your colleague here, which has been our problem. McCament: _____(02:15) Sen. Portman: Mr. Wagner, give me a timeframe. Wagner: Sir, we have to incorporate the new MOA in the draft JCO. Honestly, we are months away, but I promise to work diligently to bring it to a conclusion.
- 1:57:15 Senator Rob Portman (OH): Okay, we learned this morning that about half, maybe up to 58%, of these kids who are being placed with sponsors don’t show up at the immigration hearings. I mean, they just aren’t showing up. So when a sponsor signs the sponsorship agreement, my understanding is they commit to getting these children to their court proceedings. Is that accurate, Mr. Wagner? Steven Wagner: That is accurate. And in addition, they go through the orientation on responsibilities of custodians. Sen. Portman: So, when a child does not show up, HHS has an agreement with the sponsor that has been violated, and HHS, my understanding, is not even notified if the child fails to show up to the proceedings. Is that accurate? Wagner: That is accurate, Senator. Sen. Portman: So you have an agreement with the sponsor. They have to provide this agreement with you, HHS. The child doesn’t show up, and you’re not even notified. So I would ask you, how could you possibly enforce the commitment that you have, the agreement that you have, with the sponsor if you don’t have that information? Wagner: I think you’re right. We have no mechanism for enforcing the agreement if they fail to show up for the hearing.
- James McHenry - Director of the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review
- 2:42 Senator John Cornyn (TX): Earlier administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have struggled with how to reduce the case backlogs in the immigration courts. And, unfortunately, Congress has never provided the full extent of immigration judges and support staff truly needed to eliminate the backlogs. As a result, backlogs continue to grow, from 129,000 cases in fiscal 1998 to a staggering 684,000 as of February 2018.
- 3:27 Senator John Cornyn (TX): Aliens in removal proceedings sometimes wait for years before they ever appear before an immigration judge. For example, as of February 2018 courts in Colorado have the longest time for cases sitting on their docket more than 1,000 days—almost three years. In my home state of Texas, the current wait is 884 days—almost two and a half years.
- 7:06 Senator Dick Durbin (IL): The Fifth Amendment to the Bill of Rights contains the Constitution’s due-process clause. Let me quote it. “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” This language about due process actually dates its lineage to the Magna Carta. Please note: the due-process clause extends these critical protections to a “person,” not to a citizen. And the Supreme Court has consistently held that its protection—due-process protection—extends to all persons in the United States. The Court said expressly in Plyler v. Doe, “Aliens, even aliens whose presence in this country is unlawful, have long been recognized as ‘persons’ guaranteed due process of law by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.”
- 9:23 Senator Dick Durbin (IL): Today, 334 immigration judges face 680,000 pending cases. This backlog has grown by 145,000 cases just since President Trump was sworn into office.
- 28:45 James McHenry: A typical immigration court proceeding has two stages, or two parts. The first is the determination of removability. The Department of Homeland Security brings charges and allegations that an alien has violated the immigration laws. The judge—the immigration judge—first has to determine whether that charge is sustained, and that will be based on the factual allegations that are brought, so the judge will make determinations on that. If there is a finding that the alien is removable, then the case proceeds to a second phase. If the judge finds the alien is not removable, then the case is terminated. At the second phase, the immigration judge gives the alien an opportunity to apply for any protection or relief from removal that he or she may be eligible for under the Immigration and Nationality Act. This will involve the setting of a separate hearing at which the respondent may present evidence, they may present witnesses, they have the right to cross-examine witnesses brought by the department, and they will bring up whatever factual bases there is for their claim of relief or protection. At the end of that hearing, the immigration judge will assess the evidence, will asses the testimony, will look at the law, and will render a decision. The judge may either grant the application, in which case the respondent will get to remain in the United States. The judge may deny the application but give the respondent an opportunity to voluntarily depart at their own expense and sometimes after paying a bond, or the immigration judge may order the alien removed.
- 41:50 Senator Mike Lee (UT): I believe you recently testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee that it would take about 700 immigration judges in order to be able to address the backlog and address the current case load. Is that correct? James McHenry: Yeah, last fall the president proposed adding additional immigration judges, up to a number of 700. If we can get 700 on board, especially with our performance measures, we could complete over 450,000 cases a year. That would eviscerate the backlog. Sen. Lee: So, 700 would do it. McHenry: Based on the current numbers, it would certainly go a very long way toward eliminating it, yes. Sen. Lee: How many do you have right now? McHenry: We have 334 on board. Currently, we’re authorized, based on the recent omnibus spending bill, for up to 484. Even getting to that number would allow us to begin completing more cases than new receipts that we have in. Sen. Lee: How long does that normally take? My understanding is that between 2011 and 2016 it was taking about two years to hire a typical immigration judge. Is that still the case? McHenry: No. We have reduced that average. The attorney general issued a new hiring process memo to streamline the process last April. In using that process, we’ve put out five advertisements since the end of June for up to 84 positions in total. The first of those advertisements closed at the end of June last year. We expect to bring on the first judges from that advertisement in May, which will be right at approximately 10 months, and we anticipate bringing on the rest of them in July, which will be right at one year. And we think we can get to a stage where we are bringing on judges in eight months, 10 months, 12 months—a year at the most.
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