WASHINGTON (CN) — As Senate Republicans blamed a Ninth Circuit decision with the trend of adult immigrants bringing along a child to help their chance at U.S. entry, Democrats pushed back at their fix Wednesday as a bid to legalize indefinite detentions.
“If you change it to 25 days, now it’s going to be 28 days or 35 days before kids get out,” Senator Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said. “Instead change the focus to what is the capacity that we need at the border as the United States of America to keep children safe within the standards that we already have.”
The roundtable discussion this morning of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs came two years after the Ninth Circuit ruled in the case Flores v. DHS that unaccompanied migrant children must continue to receive bond hearings within 20 days of their confinement to a border detention center.
Officials with Department of Homeland Security note that the holding was also extended to apply to families crossing the border, and that this has contributed heavily to the 600% increase that the United States has seen in family border crossings.
The Homeland Security Advisory Council recommended in an April report that Congress enact emergency legislation to give the agency discretion to hold a child with an accompanying adult beyond the 20-day limit in Flores.
As noted Wednesday by Senator Hassan, however, the recommendation ignores the findings of the American Academy of Pediatrics about the physical and psychological harm that occurs when children are subject to lengthy detentions.
“Why doesn’t your report reflect those findings?” Hassan asked.
Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who chairs the committee, shot back by pointing to how these children are exploited in the outside world.
The objective in detaining them, he said, is “to prevent them from going to a stash house or being put in the sex-trade situation.”
Karen Tandy with Customs and Border Protection praised the “valiant efforts” of CBP agents to tackle the humanitarian crisis.
“The immigration system is overwhelmed and fractured at every critical point,” said Tandy, who chairs the Homeland Security Advisory Council. “The tender-aged children, especially children below the age of 12, are at the heart of this crisis.”
Vice-chair Jayson Ahern, who served as acting head of CBP in the George W. Bush administration, said he recognized the tragic circumstances at the border but emphasized that they are not the responsibility of DHS to remedy. Overturning Flores would stop overcrowding in facilities meant to hold migrants for hours not weeks, he said.
The Department of Homeland Security “was brought about to secure the homeland,” Ahern said, “and what deeply troubles me today is that it has actually turned into the immigration agency of this country.”
Ahern blamed a lack of funding for the agency with the reports that cropped up of detained immigrants making blankets out of aluminum foil blankets and being fed microwave burritos.
Sharon Cooper, a medical doctor who is on the Homeland Security Advisory Council, described one facility that she said should serve as a model, where families live in individual apartments and receive medical and educational services along with recreational facilities.
Her example hardly mollified Senator Gary Peters, the committee’s ranking Democrat. “What I have seen looks very different from what you have just described,” Peters said.
Undercutting the dire portrait of the dangers in Central America alleged by many U.S. asylum seekers, the panel denied that most of these immigrants face immediate danger in their country of origin.
They said the effects of drought on agricultural production is one “push factor” for those leaving the Northern Triangle, hoping to find economic opportunity and medical services in the U.S.
“At the same time we need to fix some of the pull factors on our end,” said Ahern, the vice chair.
Senator Johnson asked the panel to weigh in on Monday’s plan from the White House to overhaul the asylum system — referred to by Republicans as Operation Safe Return — which bars immigrants from seeking asylum in the United States if they have passed through another country. From Honduras or El Salvador, immigrants would typically pass through Guatemala or Mexico first, and the government says they would have to seek asylum there first.
Tandy called it a “baby step” but agreed it would send an important message to human traffickers.
“You will give beleaguered agencies the cover that they need to do this,” Tandy continued. “I don’t know that that is enough to keep courts from intervening. The real critical factor that is going to change these numbers is rolling back Flores.”