James Middlebrook

On June 11, 2019 the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Acting DHS Sec. Kevin McAleenan regarding the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the southern border. The hearing focused on the Secure and Protect Act of 2019, submitted by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), which addresses issues relating to the record flow of migrants from the northern triangle countries. The bill aims to address the asylum process, unaccompanied minors, and human trafficking.

The Secure and Protect Act of 2019 aims to change the asylum request system. It details two ways the system should be changed to lower the number of migrants from Central America. First, it would require applicants seeking asylum in the United States to apply in their home country at the American embassy instead of at an American port of entry. Second, the bill would also allow family units to be held for up to 100 days waiting for a hearing. Currently, the US can only hold family units for 21 days until they are released into the United States to wait for a hearing (Catch and Release).

A recent expedited pilot program of 7,000 family units found that 90% received final orders of removal in absentia; meaning 90% of the pilot program families received orders of deportation and did not show for their scheduled hearings. The average time to adjudicate families is 40-50 days, DHS needs changes in the law so they can hold families and unaccompanied minors longer than 21 days and until their hearing. The bill also allows unaccompanied minors to be repatriated to their nations, instead of entry into the United States. The current system allows unaccompanied minors to be assigned to sponsors in America to await hearings.

These issues will not be solved with a border wall. These are issues of the asylum process. Acting DHS Sec. Kevin McAleenan said most of the migrants are running to the first border patrol officer they encounter to claim protection in the United States. Many of these migrants are exploiting our system to be housed, then released into America, never to return for a hearing. This bill aims to change that.

Human Trafficking

“Unless you are a single adult, it is very unlikely you will be sent back to your country before being released in the US to await asylum hearing,” testified Acting DHS Sec. McAleenan. As a result of the preferential treatment given to families versus single adults, many migrants are trafficking children and posing as a family unit. McAleenan acknowledged that the word is out in Central America, it’s an easier path to entry if you have children with you. He went on to say there are advertisements telling folks if you bring a child, you won’t be deported. As a result, DHS has discovered over 4800 fraudulent family units.

In response, there has been a test program validating DNA of 170 family units. Many migrants came forward even before screening to admit being a fraud. This testing helps decipher true families and protect children from being trafficked and used as entry to the U.S.

Unfortunately, human trafficking is incentivized by our current system. Three senators raised concerns about human trafficking related to U.S. immigration policy:

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) asked Acting DHS Sec. McAleenan if there was any doubt that such a low removal rate of family units adds to smuggling issues? He responded, “No, I know it is a direct result of the trafficking.”

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) told a story of a 13-year-old girl trafficked and sexually assaulted along her journey to America. The trafficker, Ramon Pedro, promised the girl’s mother to take her to America and find her a job. Pedro posed as her father and the “family unit” was released into the United States after determining there was no bed space to house them. Although, Pedro was reportedly released with ‘alternatives to detention monitoring’ that required him to check in with federal authorities, it was only after Pedro and his “daughter” were admitted to a hospital in Fresno, CA for a tuberculosis screening that doctors discovered the girl was not his daughter and had been sexually assaulted.

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) expressed concern over reports of trafficking rings using eight kids to gain entry for 36 adults. One infant was reported to be rented for $80 for easier entry.

Acting DHS Sec. Kevin McAleenan testified that if the “narrow and targeted” changes they seek are implemented, he expects 70-90% of migrants would not begin the journey to the United States. Right now, migrants know two main things: 1) they can claim asylum at a port of entry and 2) children help them gain entry. Changing these two policies will help America solve the crisis at the border and protect children from human trafficking.