Tuesday gave Senate Democrats a chance to grill government officials over unsuccessful efforts to reunite illegal immigrant families ensnared in the Department of Justice’s zero-tolerance policy.
The hearing also gave officials a chance to point to legal loopholes that complicate efforts to enforce immigration laws. Officials in President Donald Trump’s administration defended the care given to illegal immigrant children whose parents have been jailed and asked Congress for help.
The Trump administration missed a federal judge’s deadline Friday to reunite illegal immigrants with their children. Administration officials said the parents of 431 children no longer are in the United States and that the government cannot find the parents of 90 children.
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Here are five takeaways from the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:
1.) Many families remain separated because illegal immigrants have chosen to return to their home countries and leave their kids behind. Matthew Albence, executive director of the Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), testified that illegal immigrants with deportation orders can take their children back home.
“A great many of these individuals do not wish to have their child return home with them,” he said. “The reason most of these individuals have come here in the first place is to get their children to the United States.”
Democrats on the panel expressed skepticism, pointing to a Politico report quoting an administration official that as many as 350 adults may have been deported without being given that option.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who earlier called for the resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, questioned whether the illegal immigrants had made an informed decision.
“There clearly must be a piece of paper signed by the parent before our government would let that happen,” he said.
Albence said the government has been using a consent form approved by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) since early July.
The DHS official said many illegal immigrants have spent $5,000 to $10,000 — their life savings — to get their children to the United States.
“Many of these individuals are repeat offenders. They’ve been deported previously,” he said. “They’ve got criminal histories here in the United States, meaning they’ve lived in the country illegally … It’s easier for them to leave their child here, to go back to their home country and try to re-enter this country illegally again as a single adult, as opposed to with a child.”
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Jonathan White, the commander of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, said it might be “unfathomable” to understand why a parent would decline to take his or her child back home. But he said the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found this in some cases from face-to-face interviews.
“Many parents have made this journey to deliver their children here because that is the desperate, last act of a parent trying to take their child out of some of the most dangerous places in the world to raise a child,” he said.
2.) If the government cannot detain the children, it must release the whole family. Albence described the Catch-22 confronting immigration authorities. A 1997 court settlement prohibits the government from holding illegal immigrant children longer than 20 days — even if they are with their parents. And 20 days is not long enough for immigration cases to be resolved.
“As a result, we have no choice but to release these individuals out into the community,” he said. Those cases typically take years to move through backlogged courts, and the no-show rate is high, Albence testified.
Albence called on Congress to pass a law rescinding the court settlement to allow the government to hold illegal immigrants and their children together until immigration judges rule on their cases.
That same settlement requires the government to place children crossing the border alone with sponsors. White said 49 percent go to parents living in the United States, while another 41 percent to adult siblings, uncles, grandparents or other close relatives. The other 10 percent go to friends or distant relatives.
Albence testified that very few of them ever go back home, however. He estimated the removal rate at between 1.5 percent and 2 percent.
“So, if you can get your kid here, you’ve got, like, a 98 percent chance that they’ll stay in America,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.
3.) The Alternatives to Detention (ADT) program has proven costly and ineffectual. Some have pointed to ADT — which involves phone monitoring, a smartphone application or electronic monitoring device to keep tabs on illegal immigrants — as a way to ensure compliance with immigration courts.
But Albence testified that, while ADT has led to high attendance rates in court, it has “proven to be woefully unsuccessful in leading to removals.”
“The best way to describe them is to be more like a summer camp. These individuals have access to 24/7 food and water.”
Albence testified that short-term detention of illegal immigrants costs about $1,600 per deportation. By contrast, he added, the government spent $183 million on the ADT program in fiscal year 2017 but completed only 2,430 deportations.
“That’s over $75,000 per removal … So, if you have a process that, at the end of it, the judge’s order means nothing because the individual does not appear after he’s received that order or continues to file frivolous appeals, or we’re unable to locate him, we haven’t accomplished anything except to spend a lot of taxpayer money,” he said.
4.) Officials defended the conditions of family residential centers where illegal immigrant children are held until they can be placed with a sponsor in the United States. Albence testified that children at the facilities get three meals a day and access to medical, dental and mental health services. Many never had seen a dentist before coming into U.S. custody, he said.
“The best way to describe them is to be more like a summer camp. These individuals have access to 24/7 food and water,” he said. “They have educational opportunities. They have recreational opportunities, both structured as well as unstructured. There’s basketball courts. There’s exercise classes. There’s soccer fields that we’ve put in there.”
Albence said the government also provides the children with seven sets of clothing when they leave.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) ridiculed that description. “Would you send your children to these centers?” she asked.
Jennifer Higgins, associate director of refugee, asylum and the international operations directorate at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), struggled with the question.
“I can tell you that the centers that I saw did have, as described, schools,” she said, before Hirono cut her off.
Said Albence, “We’re missing the point. These individuals are there because they’ve broken the law. There has to be a process.”
5.) The zero-tolerance policy remains in place. President Trump ended the policy of separating illegal immigrant parents from children with an executive order on June 20. But Carla Provost, acting chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, said authorities continue to refer illegal immigrants traveling alone for criminal prosecution.
And she offered no apologies for the policy.
“The law is unambiguous,” she said. “Any alien that enters or attempts to enter the United States at a place other than a designated port of entry has committed a violation.”