Senator Lankford Questions Witnesses on Placement of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Entering the US

WASHINGTON, DC –During a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) hearing, Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today questioned Acting US CBP Deputy Commissioner Robert Perez and ICE Executive Associate Director Matthew Albence about ways to solve some of the immigration placement issues for children created by the Flores Settlement and agency policy.

In August, Lankford also questioned administration officials on the protection of unaccompanied immigrant children during a HSGAC hearing. In February, Lankford introduced the SECURE and SUCCEED Act, which would provide an opportunity for approximately 1.8 million DACA or DACA-eligible immigrants to earn citizenship while strengthening US border security and enforcement measures to reduce illegal immigration. Lankford has also been vocal on the need to keep families together at the southern border. Lankford led a bipartisan group of Senators in a letter to President Trump to urge the default position of the US to keep families together at the border and to work with faith communities on its efforts to reunify families that have been separated this year.

Transcript of Hearing Q&A

Senator Lankford: Thank you for your work and for what you do to keep our nation safe. You are carrying out the law. There are a lot of families across the country who are incredibly thankful. The number 90,000 family apprehensions have come up. Is that 90,000 individuals total or is that 90,000 families but we don’t know the number within the families. Let’s do a clarification there. 

Robert Perez: Thank you, Senator. Actually for this fiscal year, CBP apprehensions both at the ports of entry and between the ports of entry through August is now over 130,000 family unites. Those are actual individuals.

Lankford: So 130,000 individuals that came as a family unit coming through?

Perez: Yes, sir.

Lankford: Do we know how many families that represents? Does that represent 750,000 families or groups of individuals?  Do you have just have a number broken down to 130,000?

Perez: It is more typically broken down in the manor of which I just mentioned. But we can get back to you on that, Senator.

Lankford: That’s fine. How do you determine family relationship there. As you have already mentioned before in your prior testimony, there are adults that are coming across the border carrying a child with them, or bringing a child with them so they can say they are a family unit. How do you determine who is a family unit and who is not?

Perez: Thank you, Senator. We are using every resource at our disposal. Not only our biographic and biometric databases, our interviews with the actual families themselves, if they are not carrying documents we will reach into the Consulate contacts we have, our contacts through the law enforcement community, and again, leading beyond the behavioral analysis and skills of our front-line agents and officers to make those determinations ultimately whether or not the family unit is in fact or the parent is just being claimed is a valid one.

Lankford: Do you have to resort to DNA testing at times to be able to determine that?

Perez: We don’t do DNA testing at the border, sir.

Lankford: So, is there an additional penalty for an adult bringing a child with them/claiming to be a family member, but then you determine this is not actually a family member, this is them trying to be released into the country. Is there any additional consequence for that individual adult?

Perez: Well typically, yes, Senator. If we find that fraudulent claim to be made, then we will refer that individual for potential prosecution, as well as of course, as I mentioned earlier, taking great care of the safety and wellbeing of that child.

Lankford: Because at that point, that child is being trafficked, or that child is being used by the adult for whatever purpose to try to get across the border and we have got to try to actually find their family.

Perez: And those are the determinations that again, uniquely, case by case, that are subsequently made and are investigated, so, whether or not it was a trafficking organization that was simply trying go gain profit, that many of them try to do by marketing themselves to migrants to take this very dangerous journey, or if it is a very serious, more alarming case of human trafficking. Those are then subsequently then investigated both by ourselves and our colleagues at ICE to make those determinations, and again, as you asked, determined what end=state and/or disposition we will collectively had with the individual that is found to be perpetuating these illicit acts.

Lankford: Thank you for the ongoing work that you are doing all the time and for those kids and those families. We talked about the push and pull factors some today. Over the last 3 years, the US congress has allocated $650 million in economic assistance for the northern triangle, economic investment there to increase jobs, anti-corruption efforts, criminal-justice efforts to try to reduce the crime rate. The murder rate has dropped some in the northern triangle, there has some economic development that is there, but we have made tremendous investments of around $650 million a year, each year, into the northern triangle to try and help them have a more and stable environment that people aren’t having to flee. At the same time, I’m concerned about the pull factor here because most the children that are coming as unaccompanied minors and many of the individuals that are coming as family unites are coming because there is a family member already here. Is it our policy currently: if there is a family member already present in the US even if they are not legally present in the US the unaccompanied minor can be placed with someone not legally present in the US.”

Matthew Albence: Those determinations are made by HHS, but I can tell you that the policy of that agency is the immigration status of the sponsor is not relevant to their determination as to whether or not a child can be placed in that household, which from our date that we have seen just recently, you’re looking at close to 80 percent of the people that are sponsors or are household members within these residences are illegally in the country.

Lankford: That has not always been so. If you go back 15-20 years ago and someone came into the country illegally as a child, they were not placed in the home of someone who also did not have legal status in the United States. The sponsor had to be someone who had legal status or was a United States citizen if you go back in time. So my question is, is that a reasonable standard to have and to go back to, that we do not have sponsors that do not have legal presence in the United States?

Albence: You’re getting me way out of my lane, because that is a HHS decision. I wouldn’t want to weigh in on how they manage their resources.

Lankford: What effect do you think that would have on the pull factor?

Perez: Thank you, Senator. I think from CBP’s perspective, pecking away at any of the potential pull factors that we are seeing that relate the spike of movement all one that is again, brought with danger, wrought with exploration, wrought with abuse and abandonment at times, is something we are interested in seeing. Again, as Mr. Albence suggests, it really is HHS to answer, and that is the question that you are posing, but I think a very important point that I would like to make from the CBP perspective is that in my opening I talked of the complexity of often times is overlooked is what is being done at the front line of the border. The National Security mission, the trade and travel mission, the drug introduction mission, the trade and force mission, all critical missions that are taxed, if you will, by the surge in migrants.

Lankford: Mr. Chairman, there seems to be some very obvious things we can do. Senator McCaskill again has brought up the judges, you have brought up the judges, expanded the number of judges, that is something we really need to continue to press in on and say we have got to have a faster adjudication/due-process than two years/two-and-a-half years. One of the issues we have to address is the issue of sponsorship. We tend to “lose children” when they go and are placed in the home of someone who already is not legally present, who has been living under the radar for years, and we are surprised when they both disappear. This should not surprise us.

If we are going to take care of children, we have to be able to figure out to take care of them, and not put them in the home of someone who is not legally here, but that also discourages people from saying ‘you are 14 years old, your dad is already in the US working, it is time for you to go join them,’ and encourage that activity and connection point. The last thing we haven’t talked about is the licensing in the facilities. I would like to be able to do some follow up on that. The Flores Agreement requires a license facility, but that has been quite a barrier to actually get licensed facilities from a state for a family facility and I Think that is creating an artificial barrier for us. I would like to be able to follow up on this in the days ahead.