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Senator Lankford Shares Frustrations on Treatment of Children at Southern Border

CLICK HERE to watch Lankford’s Q&A.


WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today shared his frustrations with the treatment of children at the Southern Border because of the lack of action by Congress to address needed changes to the legal immigration loopholes, such as the Flores Settlement, and Congress not approving supplemental funding immediately for immigration officials to care for the influx of children entering the country. During a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing entitled, “Unprecedented Migration at the US Southern Border: The Exploitation of Migrants through Smuggling, Trafficking, and Involuntary Servitude,” Lankford questioned US Customs and Border Protection and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials on the unprecedented number of migrants they are supporting at the US Southern Border. The panel of witnesses from today’s hearing included Brian Hastings, Chief, Law Enforcement Operations Directorate; Randy Howe, US Border Patrol, Executive Director of Operations, US Customs and Border Protection; and Gregory Nevano, Assistant Director of Investigative Programs, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Earlier this month, Lankford questioned Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan on the agency’s plan to address the rapidly growing humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border. Lankford has been pushing for Congress to address issues with the legal loopholes for the immigration system for two years. In April, Lankford reintroduced bipartisan legislation, the Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act, with Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Tom Carper (D-DE). The bill requires the Department of Health and Human Services to keep better track of and care for unaccompanied minors.


Lankford: I want to join my colleagues in the frustration of this day and I think what we’re experiencing today is some pint up, abject, total frustration. March the 28th of this year, at that time, Secretary of DHS came to this hearing and followed up with a letter, and this was the exact quote from her, ‘We now face a system-wide meltdown. DHS facilities are overflowing, agents and officers are stretched too thin, the magnitude of arriving and detained aliens has increased the risk of life-threatening incidents.’ Then she said, ‘My greatest concern is for the children who are put at high risk by this emergency and are arriving sicker than ever before after traveling on the treacherous trek.’ 

But instead of actually providing funding during that time period, this Congress delayed and didn’t provide the funding, didn’t engage, didn’t try to solve it. That same Secretary over and over and over again said, ‘None of this gets better until the Flores Agreement is settled.’ I have had personal conversations with Democrat and Republican members on this Committee and said, ‘At what point do we finally admit the obvious statement that the Obama Administration made, that the Trump Administration made, that if we don’t resolve the Flores Settlement, none of this actually gets better,’ because traffickers will continue to move children across our border, but children are currently being used as pawns now on the border to try to hurt the Trump Administration. And my Democratic colleagues are trying to identify children that are not getting care at the same time, slowing down the process of getting humanitarian aid to try to hurt this presidential election. 

These kids are not pawns and the Administration has said for months, after months, after, ‘We need additional humanitarian assistance.’ 

But here’s what’s happened. Nothing happened after that meeting in March. May 1st, HHS sent us a protracted letter to try to get additional assistance in saying, ‘We are in a crisis moment.’ May the 17, they contacted us again and said, ‘We are at a critical moment.’ Secretary Azar from HHS came back and said at that same time period, ‘We are at a critical moment.’ We tried to move a humanitarian relief package with the disaster relief package on May the 22nd, and Leader Schumer came to the floor and made this statement, ‘The Democrats are ready to pass the bipartisan disaster relief package that’s already been agreed to and written, but we should pass the disaster agreement as is and return to unrelated issues at a later date.’ Unrelated issues is this humanitarian issue. To say, ‘These unrelated issues are slowing down our disaster work, so we’ll put the humanitarian work off ‘til later.’ And then yesterday, Senator Schumer was back on the floor criticizing the President and criticizing all of these folks and their saying, ‘why aren’t you taking care of the kids?’ when this Committee has talked about it for months. Y’all have asked for it for months, and all we’ve got to is we’ll get to ‘unrelated issues later.’

Now, I’m tired of people calling my office and saying, ‘how come you don’t care about the kids?’ I’m sure you’re [witnesses] tired of reading in the media every day, ‘how come you don’t care about the kids.’ If 500 people showed up at your house tomorrow and said, ‘I’m gonna stay here for a week,’ would your house be ready to take 500 people? What would you do—if 500 people came to your house tomorrow and said, ‘I need to stay here?’ Y’all are having to manage thousands of people showing up at facilities that are not prepared for thousands of people—that never have been—and that are certainly not set up for kids, and the whole time we argue about ‘what are we gonna do?” when everyone knows the issue: it’s the Flores settlement. 

Every smuggler uses that, and we won’t acknowledge it. And there’s been a dramatic slowdown in trying to actually get humanitarian aid. Now the Senate comes to an agreement—finally—on humanitarian aid, and the House responds with a solely partisan bill? And says, ‘No. We’re gonna try to do a partisan bill.’ And then the conversation this week was, ‘well, we may not get to the humanitarian bill this week if we don’t get a certain vote we want on the NDAA. As Democrats, we may hold off the humanitarian bill and NDAA for two weeks from now.’ Yet another delay because it’s an ‘unrelated bill.’ So I don’t know if we get the humanitarian vote again this week because Democratic leadership is postponing again while going to the floor and saying, ‘why isn’t the Trump Administration doing anything about this?’ You can’t have it both ways. This is not about hurting the President in his presidential [election] hopes for next year. This is about a group of kids that we need to reduce the incentive for them to be able to come illegally across our border, and we need to take care of the folks that are already here. This is not that hard. But it’s become this horrible partisan issue that I think all of us are really frustrated with. To say, ‘this has been discussed to death.’ We’ve got to be able to act on this.

So I want to ask just a couple of stats. How many folks are coming across as males at this point and claiming to be 17 years old? Is there a disproportionate amount of males crossing the border and saying, ‘I’m 17.’? 

Hastings: Sir, I don’t have the exact numbers, but I can tell you that we’re seeing a higher number of families with fathers as the primary—they’re the primary parent that’s coming across. So we’re seeing an increase of fathers with children. I don’t have the exact numbers with me.

Lankford: How many countries have you seen crossing our border with minors?

Hastings: So, 140 different countries that we have seen apprehension. That we have made from 140 countries, 52 countries for family units. So we have family units from 52 different countries that have crossed into the US this Fiscal Year.

Lankford: And that…and that’s just this Fiscal Year? So that would be since October 1 of last year?

Hastings: That’s correct, sir.

Lankford: 82 percent of the people, you testified, are people that are crossing the border are coming from countries other than Mexico at this point. Is that correct?

Hastings: That is correct, sir.

Lankford: Guatemalan authorities that I met with this week have stated that DHS has worked very hard with them and that Guatemalan authorities are continuing to be able to work because quite frankly the Guatemalan authorities don’t want these kids also making this trek. And they’re trying to do what they can to be able to slow down the flow from their side as well. And they were very appreciative of the work that DHS has done to be able to partner with Guatemala, specifically. Now I’m sure if I talk to the Honduran authorities and the El Salvadorian authorities, they would say the same. But the Guatemalan authorities this week were very grateful to our government and the work that they’re doing to not only be able to protect those kids but quite frankly they want their kids back home…and they’re a little frustrated by this whole journey as well. As a country, we have put hundreds of millions of dollars into Central America and into the northern triangle, for quite a while, to help stabilize those governments and to continue to be able to do that… So all of this conversation that we are doing nothing to be able to help the issues there really is we are doing a lot of things to be able to help the issues in Central America. What’s not being done is deal with the poll factors here and the Flores Settlement. And frustratingly enough, also not the humanitarian assistance.