Immigration Is Under the White Hot Spotlight of Capitol Hill Hearings

Congress held no fewer than four events on Wednesday — 'We face a sustained crisis at our borders,' said Kirstjen Nielsen

Image Credit: JOHAN ORDONEZ & PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images & Shutterstock

Congress held no less than four hearings around the same time on Wednesday all focused on immigration policy, including securing the border, human smuggling, and the issue of amnesty.

President Donald Trump has focused on stopping illegal immigration at the border throughout his time in office.

He’s allocated resources and personnel to secure the southern border, fought to build a border wall, and cracked down on fraudulent asylum claims. But fierce opposition has met him at many stages of implementing that agenda.

Congressional Democrats have warned that his policies aren’t as effective at stopping illegal immigration and have actually hurt people and families who are fleeing violence and oppression. That’s not how the administration sees it.

“Legal immigration has been a bedrock of this country,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said during one of the hearings. “But illegal immigration is simply spiraling out of control and is threatening public safety and national security. We face a crisis, a real and sustained crisis at our borders. We have tens of thousands of illegal immigrants arriving at our doorstep every month.”

The House Homeland Security Committee hosted Nielsen at a hearing focused on ways to move forward on immigration. She highlighted what the administration has been doing to address border issues while also stressing that the situation is a crisis and more needs to be done to fix it.

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“We have drugs, criminals and violence spilling into our country every week, and we have smugglers and traffickers profiting from human misery every single day by exploiting people who are seeking a better life, deceiving them about our laws and fueling everything from sexual slavery, child exploitation to the smuggling of illicit goods,” Nielsen said.

“Make no mistake, this chain of human misery is getting worse.”

The House Judiciary Committee was holding a hearing at the same time on protecting certain classes of migrants. The Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) programs allow migrants to stay in the country under certain conditions, including if their home country is affected by armed conflict or natural disaster.

The hearing also covered Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients who were brought to the country illegally as children.

“This hearing takes on a greater urgency in light of the Trump administration’s decisions to dismantle current protections for dreamers and recipients of TPS and DED,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). “In December of 2017, however, the Trump administration announced the end of DACA, threatening to remove these young people from the only country many of them have ever known.”

Former President Barack Obama implemented the protections in an executive order back in June 2012. The move was to circumvent congressional inaction; thousands of illegal children and young adults were at risk. They were nicknamed dreamers after the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

Related: The First Active-Duty Troops Arrive at the U.S. Border

Trump later upended the order while calling for a legislative fix instead, in September 2017. Congress put forth a series of bills that all eventually failed. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced one of the bills, which included a path to citizenship for 1.8 million DACA recipients and $25 billion to fund a southern border wall.

But despite strong support from Republicans, it failed like the rest.

“The majority of the House Republican Conference voted to provide legal status for some of the current illegal immigrant population, namely recipients of the last administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program,” said Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the House Judiciary Committee ranking member. “We also supported legal status for DACA recipients because the bill gave us a path forward out of the legal confusion and incorporated enforcement measures to reduce illegal immigration.”

Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) also pointed to the failed bill in arguing that protections without fixing border security would only lead to a worsening of the problem over time. He also noted concerns about the panel of guests hosted by the committee. The panel included a Harvard University graduate, medical students, and others who are in the various protected programs.

The report found that more than 76,000 migrants crossed the border last month, at more than double the number from the same point last year. There has also been a growing number of family units, which makes the situation more complex.

“We must be realistic. Not everyone who applied for DACA is a Rhodes Scholar, nor will every recipient go to medical school or graduate from college,” Buck said. “I fear these witnesses are being held hostage by the majority, that they are being used as pawns to score political points while the majority intends to push a partisan bill that has little hope of becoming law.”

Across the way, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on human smuggling at the border. It covered other subjects as well, such as the increase in illegal immigration and the two migrant children who died in the custody of Border Patrol late last year.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan testified that the situation is getting worse.

“Since I last appeared before the committee three months ago, we’ve seen the challenges at the border increase significantly,” McAleenan told lawmakers. “We are confronting challenging new smuggling cycles, patterns and methods — [including] so-called caravans, where 500 or more form groups in Central America, mostly in Honduras, and travel together through Mexico.”

Customs and Border Protection released a report warning of a new and growing challenge on the southwest border on Tuesday. The report found that more than 76,000 migrants crossed the border last month, at more than double the number from the same point last year. There has also been a growing number of family units, which makes the situation more complex.

Related: Trump Threatens Southern Border Shutdown

Trump and his administration have warned that illegal immigration allows for trafficking across the border. Many migrants use human smugglers in an attempt to get into the country illegally — which poses significant dangers. He’s also faced several migrant caravans over the past year; the largest showed up in the fall.

The caravans have sometimes included thousands of migrants, with many who seek asylum. Trump attempted to crack down on fake asylum claims but legal challenges and political disputes have gotten in the way; one policy wanted to detain migrants until their claims could be determined, which resulted in the family separation controversy.

John Kelly, the Homeland Security acting inspector general, addressed some of those concerns during another hearing — this one hosted by the House Appropriations Committee. He said his office has conducted unannounced inspections of detention facilities in response to requirements set forth by the committee and concerns raised by immigrant rights groups.

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