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Garland deflects public health hot potato in push for bigger budget

Immigration and the pandemic took center stage at a hearing on the Justice Department’s funding, with the issue of last year's Capitol riot largely taking a back seat.

WASHINGTON (CN) — With the Justice Department asking for about 7% more money from the government's coffers, Republican Senator Susan Collins tried to paint the agency as hypocritical in its defense of mask mandates and simultaneous abandonment of pandemic-minded border controls.

The issues mentioned this afternoon by the senator from Maine are ones still navigating the courts. The Biden administration had been set to lift an immigrant-expulsion policy known as Title 42 before a federal judge in Louisiana entered a restraining order that prevents it from doing so. Meantime, after another federal judge struck masking guidance for public transportation, the Justice Department has vowed to appeal.

Collins asked Garland, who is testifying before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee about his department’s $37.6 billion budget request, how the DOJ can justify arguing in court that pandemic infections have “subsided enough to warrant the termination of Title 42, which will worsen the problem of tens of thousands of unvaccinated migrants illegally entering the country — while at the same time arguing in a separate case that the public health consequences are dire enough to warrant compelled mask usage by Americans on public transportation?”

Garland responded to Collins that it's a matter of understanding what his office does.

“I think it’s important for me to explain the role of the Justice Department — which is not to make judgments about the public health and really not to make judgments about policy in either of the two areas that you’re raising, but rather to make determinations of whether the programs and requests of the agencies that are responsible for those are lawful,” Garland said.

He continued, “We do not make the public health determinations that you’re speaking of.”

Collins responded by continuing to probe Garland about what she called “another consequence of the uncontrolled” U.S.-Mexico border, namely, reports of resources to combat illegal drugs being diverted to address surging border crossings. She asked Garland if he agrees that the inability to secure the southern border has led to more illegal drugs being funneled into the U.S.

“The job of the Justice Department is to fight the large-scale drug-trafficking organizations that are bringing these drugs into the country,” Garland said. “That’s the reason we have asked for ... increases for all of our DEA drug programs.”

He noted that approximately $2.52 billion of the department’s $37.6 billion budget request is for the Drug Enforcement Agency to target drug cartels and trafficking.

“We are asking for all the money we can get and we are not stopping,” he said.

The Connecticut federal judge turned top federal prosecutor also pointed out that the Justice Department indicted former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez last week for his role in funneling 500 tons of cocaine into the U.S.

Senator Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican, followed up with more questions about the border and said there seems to be conflicting statements as to whether the influx of migrants stems from a lack of resources and confusion over whether “lower levels of authority” are being tasked with addressing illegal border crossings.

Do we need to do something differently and does your office need to be outspoken about trying to fix it?” Braun asked.

Garland again denied that such inquiries fell under his purview as attorney general.

“I want to be careful about explaining what our role is because we do need more resources,” Garland said. “Most of the resources you’re referring to are Department of Homeland Security resources, so I’ll leave that for that secretary to express what they need.

He continued, “Our job is to run the immigration court after we get referrals from DHS.”

The department, he said, requested $1.35 billion to hire more staff, including 200 additional immigration judges, and to increase funding for a virtual immigration court to address the yearslong backlog and allow cases to be adjudicated “more efficiently and more effectively from whatever area.”

Asked if the budget request will be enough or if it was just “lip service,” the attorney general said the department did not receive the 100 additional hires requested in fiscal-year 2022, “so we’re trying to be realistic about what we’re asking for.”

Last month, the Justice Department announced a new rule that allows asylum officers to consider certain immigration claims of people who would otherwise face expedited removal but have asserted that they will be persecuted or tortured if returned to their homelands. Previously, only immigration judges could review such claims.

While immigration and the pandemic took center stage during Tuesday’s hearing, the Justice Department’s request for $34 million to bolster resources for the ongoing Capitol riot investigation was largely left out.

The hearing concluded with questions about efforts to crack down on Russian oligarchs as the Kremlin continues a war in Ukraine that began on Feb. 24. 

Last month, Garland launched the interagency task force KleptoCapture to enforce sanctions against Russian oligarchs. Since then, the department has indicted Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev, seized oligarch Viktor Vekselberg’s super-yacht and dismantled two major Russia-affiliated cyber-crime networks, Hydra and Sandstorm.

Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina asked if the Justice Department will need to send a request to Congress for “legal changes" to go after Russian oligarchs?

“The answer is yes … within days probably,” Garland said.

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