WASHINGTON (CN) – Protesters holding a banner proclaiming “Kids Are Dying” were quietly escorted from a congressional oversight hearing Tuesday where lawmakers and immigration enforcement officials debated the merits of rewriting rules around the detention of migrant children.
The Trump administration is in the middle of revising the 1997 Flores agreement, a settlement which guaranteed that immigrant children cannot be held in detention for over 20 days.
The proposed revisions feature indefinite detention for children and families who are apprehended by border protection officials after illegally entering the country.
The administration has argued this practice would cut down on the ballooning immigration court backlog and give courts time to process new cases and those waiting in the queue.
But the proposal would have a human cost several lawmakers expressed an unwillingness to pay during a Senate Committee on Homeland Security hearing held Tuesday.
“How long is too long to detain a child in a facility?” Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, asked Matthew Albence, executive associate director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Shaking his head, Albence told the committee he was “not qualified” to answer the question.
When asked if he or other officials at ICE had studied any literature that reviews the long-term health consequences of detention on children, Albence said he “couldn’t speak to it,” but quickly offered his assurance: “Our family residential centers are humane.”
One of the migrant families processed through a facility Albence oversees as director, was not so humane, according to a lawsuit filed by Yazmin Juarez. The native Guatemalan was held at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas after seeking asylum in the U.S. with her 19-month old daughter, Mariee.
In tight quarters for three weeks with allegedly abysmal medical care, Juarez claims that after her stay at the facility, her daughter contracted a respiratory illness.
Mariee was dead six weeks later.
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., asked Albence and Robert Perez, acting deputy commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, or CBP, if they were aware of reports of child abuse at any facility.
Neither said they were, prompting the senator to ask why they supported indefinite detention amid so many whistleblower reports from inside the Department of Homeland Security.
“We’re implementing process as contemplated by the court in its ruling which requires that children can be held in licensed facilities. We have been unable to get state licensure in most places,” Albence said. “No one is arguing this is not a humanitarian crisis, the numbers show it.”
Perez told Hassan indefinite detention acts as a stronger deterrent to those attempting to cross the border.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., focused her attention on Joseph Edlow, the Justice Department’s acting deputy assistant attorney general.
“Is it a federal crime if a child is sexually assaulted in a federal [immigration] facility?” Heitkamp asked.
Edlow said he didn’t know.
“You should figure that out. It would at least be appropriate to figure out the jurisdiction,” Heitkamp retorted, seemingly incredulous as she threw her hands up.
When the same question was asked of Albence, he said he was “not aware of any sexual assault or harassment” cases.
His comment was immediately followed by a laugh of seeming disbelief from somewhere in the committee room.
Last month, two Department of Homeland Security employees who worked with children at two different immigrant detention facilities in Arizona were arrested on charges of sexual abuse and child molestation, according to the New York Times.
Perez told the committee that Custom and Border Protection is actively conducting investigations “the best they can” to ensure that standards are being met and federal guidelines around the Prison Rape Elimination Act are being followed.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., also squared off with Albence, at one point asking how he justified his statements before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July. Albence compared the Dilley, Texas facility to a summer camp at the hearing.
His statement was deceptive, she explained, and implied the facility as so safe, parents would want to send their children for a “good time.”
“Parents who brought their children here, to cross the border, put themselves in this position,” Albence said.
Neither official was able to confirm how many families have actually been separated at the border since June of this year.
Perez said separation at the border would only occur if there was “an issue with parentage or a health/safety concern for the child,” though he was unable to say how many times these types of separations have occurred.
Albence told the committee ICE was also unsure how many, if any, cases involving suspected human trafficking of children at the border has been forwarded for prosecution.
Before more time, money and effort is put into rewriting Flores – and indefinite detention becomes an option for migrant children – senators from both sides of the aisle agreed: there should be a greater push from the Executive Office of Immigration Review and the Justice Department to hire more immigration court judges.
Edlow said Tuesday over 128 new judges have been hired so far to tackle the massive backlog of over 740,000 cases.
“But it’s not just a matter of judges. It’s the facilities for those judges. Courtrooms, video teleconferencing systems and frankly, the appropriations to ensure that ICE can provide a trial attorney at those hearings,” Edlow said.
To this, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, asked Edlow: “Wouldn’t that be a better investment than opening family prisons?”
“We’re throwing up roadblocks when the real problem is that we haven’t invested in a system for adequate personnel to handle these claims,” she said.