Senate Split on How to Keep Border Jails Humane

WASHINGTON (CN) — Frustrations simmered Tuesday in Congress as a Border Patrol official told lawmakers that “fraudulent families” are bogging down the U.S. asylum pipeline.

“They know, you grab a kid, that’s your passport into the United States because of the Flores settlement agreement,” said Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Patrol, referring to a Ninth Circuit decision that gave immigrant families the right to be released from detention facilities after 20 days, whereas previously only unaccompanied migrant children were given the right.

“That has to be changed and it’s going to take a legislative fix to do that,” Morgan added. “If that doesn’t happen, all of this other stuff we’re talking about … it does nothing though to stem the flow. If we don’t address the Flores settlement agreement, they are going to keep coming.”

As government officials are sworn in to testify Tuesday at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security hearing, a security guard approachers activists holding signs for the group Code Pink.

Describing the results of a DNA-testing pilot program, Morgan said his agency counted 5,800 groups that had fraudulently held themselves out as families to exploit the Flores loophole.

While Democrats like Senator Dianne Feinstein have said this problem could be addressed with tighter anti-trafficking laws, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson denied that the government has the resources for such a crackdown.

“We don’t really have time to determine, is that the father or is that the human trafficker, or that his daughter or is that his trafficking victim,” said Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican. “Our broken laws are creating risks for these migrants.”

But Democrats pushed back on the argument that a so-called Flores fix from the Legislature will end the border crisis.

Asking Morgan to commit to dismantling the culture of mistreatment in the agency, New Hampshire Congresswoman Margaret Hassan focused on reports of Border Patrol agents verbally and sexually abusing detainees.

“The revelation about the Facebook page and a number of people participating in that tends to give credence to the notion that there is a troubling culture at least among some of the officers,” she said.

Customs and Border Patrol detained, on average, 4,652 families in May, with the rate dropping to 3,476 in June.

Representative Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who chairs the committee, said that pace adds up to more than 78,000 immigrants so far in 2019.

“I ask anybody criticizing the conditions down there, how would you handle 4,652 people a day?” Johnson said. “And by the way, it doesn’t stop at 5 o’clock at night. It continues 24/7.”

Homeland Security Deputy Inspector General Jennifer Costello, who also testified Tuesday, told the committee that the agency has confirmed serious overcrowding issues with unannounced inspections of CBP facilities in Texas.

A chart on migrant crossings is displayed Tuesday for a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

With Democrats like Michigan Representative Gary Peters insisting that the stories of inhumane treatment in immigration jails cannot be ignored, however, Morgan denied reports that his officers have forced children to drink from toilets and deny them toothbrushes.

Costello followed up that her teams found children were provided supplies like diapers and infant formula, but that agents were not providing hot meals to children, prior to the inspection, at two out of five facilities. In three of five facilities, children received limited clean clothes and no access to showers. 

Republicans insisted that treatment would improve if Congress hands out money for increased CBP bed space, facilitating the transfer of detainees from facilities where maximum capacity is just 4,000 to longer-term facilities operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Johnson closed out the hearing by noting that immigration judges approved only around 10% of the approximately 30,000 Central Americans who applied for U.S. asylum.

In addition unraveling Flores, Johnson said the country needs a higher standard of credible fear to adjudicate claims rather than a standard of reasonable fear.

“The law change, and it’s going to require Congress to act, the law change has to close that gap,” he said.

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