Senator Lankford Stresses Support for Border Agents after Trip to US-Mexico Border
CLICK HERE to watch Lankford’s floor speech.
WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today offered a speech on the Senate floor detailing his oversight trip to the southern border on July 21. Lankford began his speech by telling the story of a three-year-old migrant boy who was found at the US-Mexico border alone after he was used to smuggle people over the border by the cartels, and the only information available about the child when he was apprehended by Border Patrol was a name and phone number written on his shoes (pictured above).
Lankford and Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Bill Cassidy (R-GA) went to the southern border to see first-hand and thank the federal law enforcement agents protecting and serving at our border; to see the facilities and conditions in which migrant families, individual adults, and minors are held; to ensure hygiene supplies are readily available to migrants and able to be used; and to assess the need for congressional action to solve some of the issues leading to the humanitarian crisis. Lankford’s speech highlighted specific ways in which the cartels in Mexico are able to exploit loopholes in our laws to help migrants from at least 63 countries around the world attempt to cross our border this year.
Mr. President, in April of this year, Border Patrol agents in south Texas, near McAllen, one of the most crossed areas for illegal traffic in the entire southern border, saw a group of individuals walking north that had already crossed the border, and they broke and ran. They assumed these individuals were illegally present in the United States, and they started moving to try to interdict them. They searched through a very large, very overgrown field. I can tell you that area's very, very rough terrain, and it's very isolating and the brush is exceptionally heavy. And on a day even in April in south Texas, it's extremely hot.
As they searched through the field looking for individuals, they happened to hear a child crying in their search. They encountered a three-year old boy who had been abandoned by the human smugglers when they broke and ran. This young boy—three years old—had those shoes on, and on his shoes were written a name and a phone number across his shoes. That's the only identifying thing that they have. They tested the phone number, by the way, and the phone number didn't work. Those human smugglers, moving people into the United States, using children as the vehicle, are prone to just cast that child aside if they slow them down. The Border Patrol agents that encountered this child wearing those shoes, took him back to the office. Those Border Patrol agents personally bought him new clothing. The fellow agents entertained him—you can see him playing a little Paw Patrol back at the station. They spent time comforting him and trying to figure out who he was and where he was from. And Border Patrol agents alternated off taking care of him, personally buying supplies for him until they could transition him to Health and Human Services care. That's what's really happening on the border every single day.
Border Patrol agents are dealing with children that cartels are using to be able to move adults into the United States. Yes, there are some family units that are moving in, but every single family unit that moves into the United States is being ushered in by a cartel that works the border, and they are choosing the time and the place to be able to move those individuals. These officers are risking their lives every single day. They are working with families every single day to try to figure out who is a family unit and who is a child that’s just being smuggled to be able to be used as a vehicle to get across the border and to figure out how to be able to separate the two. And then once they identify the child to try to figure out: what do we do now with this child that we have? Where are you from?
Several months ago, most of the children that were moving across were ten, 11, 12, and they could interview those children. The cartels have figured that out now, and they’re sending more and more children that are infants and one, two, and three year olds that don't know where they are from and don't know their name or their background or any details about it. And it’s becoming more and more difficult for the Border Patrol agents to be able to figure this out. In fact, Border Patrol agents just like this are now actually bringing their own car seats or finding other people from their churches and other places that will donate car seats because when HHS needs to transport them out of a bus, they don’t have car seats there. And so they are paying for car seats to be able to help some of these abandoned children be able to get to a place of safety.
These are the folks that are being criticized. These are the folks that some of my colleagues, even as recently as this week, said they need to get 40 hours of sensitivity training because they are so insensitive to what is happening on the border. These are the folks putting their own personal finances and their life on the line that are working every day to be able to solve some of the problems that we have.
For years we have been talking about our failed immigration system, and for the past several years there's been disagreements on the solutions and wide disagreements on federal law enforcement and what they’re doing along the border. There have been a lot of folks casting blame on federal law enforcement, on the President, instead of actually trying to figure out what is the problem at the border? Why is this happening? Why have our numbers so rapidly accelerated?
This past weekend I visited the border with some of my colleagues. I went with Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, Dr. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. We went to the Rio Grande Valley sector. That area of the border is a thin slice of the border between the United States and Mexico, but in that area, 40 percent of all illegal traffic moves across the border in that one zone. The most heavily trafficked area of that zone is the McAllen sector, and that's where we went.
Across that one area in that one small segment of the border, they've got 1,500 and 2,000 individuals every single day illegally crossing the border—in that one small sector of a 2,000 mile-long border. In that one small sector, they’ve had just this year 63 different countries, individuals from those countries, cross the border illegally. 63 different countries. I hear a lot of folks say, ‘It is all folks from Central America crossing across the border to be able to flee.’ That's not true. 63 different countries just this year, just around McAllen, Texas, not including the whole rest of the border.
You see the cartels sort individuals by country and by background. They send Indians one direction, they send Pakistanis another direction. They send individuals from Bangladesh another direction. They send folks from Honduras and Guatemala another direction.
When I walked into one of the stations of the five stations that we visited all through that area this weekend, when I walked into one of the stations just to do a quick pop in to see who was there, at that moment, half the adults that there were there—these were single adults, half the adults that were there were from Venezuela, half of them were from Cuba. Because that's how the cartels sort individuals.
We’ve had individuals from just in that one station in McAllen from Pakistan, Yemen, China, Venezuela, Bangladesh, Syria, in addition to many countries from Africa and Asia and obviously much of Central America as well. Those individuals are moving across the border in very high numbers. Ninety percent of the apprehensions that have happened this year—90 percent—have been from other countries other than Mexico. And where it used to be, just as recently as 2014, only one percent of the men who crossed the border had a child with them, now the number is 50 percent of the men crossing the border have a child with them—50 percent. The numbers have dramatically changed and what's happening along our border is significant. And the men and women that are actually working every single day to be able to protect what's happening at the border, those individuals are also processing trade that's happening. These same individuals are processing 650,000 trucks coming to this area, 2.2 million pedestrians, 9.3 million passengers coming across in different personal vehicles that are happening. There's a lot going on.
So when I went down to the border this weekend and visited the five different facilities and then spent much of the evening and deep into night riding along with Border Patrol with one set of agents and then switched vehicles to go with a different set of agents to be able to ride along to the border just to get a feel for what is happening. What I experienced was exceptionally painful. What I saw were places that were crowded, the situations is spartan, and it echoed in my mind that for months the Administration and the committee that I serve on, members of the Homeland Security Committee have said for months, ‘There is a humanitarian crisis on this border.’ But it didn't seem anyone was listening until recently.
It's been ‘all of this just has created’ until recently and now suddenly people are turning their attention to what’s happening along this border and saying, ‘There is a serious humanitarian problem.’ And we’ve said, ‘Welcome to the dialogue,’ because we've been saying it for months.
Cartels are making millions and millions of dollars exploiting children. They are smuggling children and families across the border. If you're an individual, a single individual, it costs $8,000 now to be able to cross the border, and you pay a toll to the cartels, both to the traffickers and smugglers that are moving people, that $8,000, and then an additional fee to actually physically cross the border at the time of the cartel’s choosing in that area. But if you bring a child with you, it's half price; it's $4,000. The incentive now is: it is cheaper to be able to cross this area if you bring a child because the cartel knows, ‘I don't have to sneak you over the wall. All I have to do is be able to get you to the border and drop you off.’
And we watched as a family unit and a group of families were sent one direction and Border Patrol interdicted them and then a mile away, three single adults made a sprint for the border, went to the wall with a makeshift ladder, and started working their way up the ladder, but because it took extra time for them to be able to do that, Border Patrol could get to their location and interdict them and arrest them. But cartels time it to be able to move a set of families one direction to get all of the Border Patrol gathered around them to hopefully sneak in people that most likely have a criminal record that can't just go through the normal system. They can't just match up a family with them; they've got to move them separately. And at the same time moving large quantities of drugs across the border not far away from there.
On the day that I was there, this picture was taken along the border not far from where I was. This was taken at 3 o’clock in the afternoon with a group of four individuals carrying large bags and boxes across the border. Now I can't tell you for certain what’s in those, but I have a pretty good guess that at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, four individuals bringing almost identical bundles across the border, it's a pretty good guess those are drugs. This still photo snapped at 3 o’clock in the afternoon during a weekend was a reminder again of exactly what's happening at the border as cartels line up, families go this direction, single individuals with a criminal record go this direction, and then we move drugs a different direction to see if we can't work our way through it.
Why is this happening? This is happening because Customs and Border Patrol are spending all their time on humanitarian work now. 60 percent of the work of each individual agent has been on humanitarian work processing families. But they're doing the work. They're engaged in the process and they are committed to taking care of people. When 60 percent are in town taking care of the humanitarian work, that leaves only 40 percent to still be able to patrol the border. Where there used to be literally 60 people that would travel in this region of the border, now there's 20 to be able to cover all of those miles. And the cartels know it. So the more they can send families up through this section, the more they can cause chaos inside, the greater likelihood they can move drugs across the border freely.
How does this happen? This happens because the cartels can work to be able to get a message to Central America and say, ‘We have a way to get you into the United States, and we can get you in quickly. Bring a child with you. You pay them $8,000 or $4,000 if you bring a child. We will work you up.’ They make promises to them of would will happen. Many of these people are from high-poverty areas in Central America, and they will work them towards the border and drop them off at that spot. Or it costs even more if you're not from Central America.
Some Chinese individuals that have been moved across our border paid as much as $30,000 to the cartels, $30,000 to be able to pay the price to be able to move them through Mexico and then cross the border at a time of their choosing. This is something that is making a tremendous amount of money for the cartels. And if we don't engage on solving this issue, we're allowing it.
We need to realize that our laws are broken. They're not only broken for immigration of what's happening, they're not only breaking our hearts for what's happening in the humanitarian crisis of what's actually occurring, but it's become a critical issue that we have to be able to respond, and we should.
Let me show you this next shot. This is what it looks like now along the border. As I traveled through the different locations to be able to see what was happening in the five different locations, some of them are gut-wrenching and difficult because for the Border Patrol, there are police stations basically along the border. Border Patrol—they don't do detention. When you go to a police station—and I hope you only go legally to a police station, but if you go to a police station—they're not there to be able to hold people. They're there to be able to write up all the reports, they’re there to be able to go through process, but they are not set up to hold people for long periods of time. That's not what a police station does.
Border Patrol stations are like police stations along the border. They're really offices, and they manage that. But now they've also become places they have to hold children and adults by the thousands. Thousands of people are crossing the border, and they're trying to figure out how to be able to manage it. Some of their facilities are exceptionally overcrowded.
There’s a facility that many people have seen the pictures of, they affectionately call it the ‘kids in cages facility.’ I'll tell you more about that in a little bit. That location was designed for 1,500 people total. It had 1,590 the day I was there. It’s had as many as 3,000 in that facility though within the last couple of months. It is miserably overcrowded. There are people packed in together. But those individuals are getting meals, showers, toilets, access to supplies, snacks, all the basics are being provided, and the Border Patrol are trying to figure out: how do we manage this many people when none of them were trained on how to be able to detain people because that's not their task.
Border Patrol has now set up this facility, called a ‘soft-sided facility,’ where they've moved a thousand family units away from that larger, what they call, the, ‘central processing facility.’ They moved it away from the central processing facility a few miles away and have set up a massive series of tents, air-conditioned, a lot more space. This happens to be in one of those where there were actually teenage boys in this particular area. This is what detention looks like now along the border. They're sitting there watching actually Puss in Boots on the TV. There are people laying around and getting some chance to get some space. There’s recreation space, and plenty of activity that's going on there. This is what Border Patrol is currently doing to try to be able to manage it. What does that look like and how will things be able to work?
When you check-in at the border patrol station, wherever it maybe, whether it’s in the central processing facility that is so overcrowded or whether it's out to the soft-sided facility when you get there the first thing they do is they actually swap clothes with you. They've got clothes that they bought with their budgets. They allow you to be able to pick different types of clothes to be able to wear. The Border Patrol and their families take the clothes of those individual migrants, and they have washing machines set up, and they will personally wash all their clothes for them while they get a shower and they get cleaned up—because many of these folks have not showered and cleaned up for a month.
So the first step that they do is help them get all cleaned up and to able to get them fresh clothes on and a fresh shower and hot meals. They have hot meals every single day. They also have snacks and supplies. This is again in that same soft-sided facility. This is just one of their supply rooms where you can get a feel for snacks and drinks and water and toiletries. Back over in this area, large quantities of hygiene products, clothes, all kinds of things that are all piled up that they have gathered to be able to help take care of individuals.
One of the things that I’ve heard so many times is ‘these kids can't even brush their teeth because Americans are so mean and because the Border Patrol are so ruthless to them.’ I went to five different facilities, and every facility I asked to see their supply room. And every facility I saw these. That looks like toothbrushes to me. In fact in the central processing facility that's had so much attention in the media, I asked the director there, and they said they've actually had 87,000 toothbrushes there. There's always been toothbrushes and toothpaste. There's always been soap and water and ways to be able to clean up. The challenge is some of these folks come from very remote villages and guess what? They're not used to brushing their teeth every day. That's not a normal hygiene habit for some people in some places they come from. So when the media says ‘have you brushed their teeth today?’ and they say ‘no,’ and it's not because they didn't have a toothbrush available. It's because no, they didn't brush their teeth today. I actually watched an interview where they went to a child and said, ‘have you brushed your teeth?’ And they said ‘no.’ And the response on Twitter was ‘how atrocious. We're better than this as Americans’ when this was what was in the store room and they've been offered. Interestingly enough, even as I walked through the central processing facility that is way overcrowded, I saw people lined up at the sinks brushing their teeth. We are providing supplies and resources for these individuals. That is a normal habit.
This was interesting to me as I walked through the facility, and this was in the central processing facility that was so crowded. As I walked through, there’s a Coast Guard individual here because, yes, the Coast Guard is coming to be able to help the Border Patrol because they need additional manpower. This is a Coastie that was coming through the facility that found a young girl that was just crying on her own. She's alone. One of these kids that had just been dropped off. And he's walking through the facility, walking her around, holding her while she cried. And they had just stopped for a moment to watch TV. This is what's actually going on at the border.
Now here are facilities that are overcrowded? Absolutely there are. The people that struggle with that the most are actually members of the Border Patrol because they have been exceptionally frustrated that they're not getting more support and more ability to be able to transition people out of their facilities into actual detention facilities.
You see, the famous ‘kids in cages’ facility that President Trump has taken so much heat for is actually a facility in McAllen, Texas, they call the central processing facility. It was stood up in 2014 and 2015 when President Obama was facing a rush of children coming across the border with no place to put them. And so President Obama's team, Jeh Johnson as the Secretary of DHS, built a facility in McAllen to be able to hold children there. That's the facility that President Trump is getting blamed for—President Obama and his team actually designed and built. Now, is it a great facility for children? No. I don't think it is. Nor is it the fault of Border Patrol, though, that it's a bad facility. They're using what they have to be able to manage the crisis that's happening in front of them. But I’m tired of hearing people say that President Trump is trying to be able to throw all these kids out and treat them so miserable when that is not the case. They're scrambling to be able to figure out what they can do and how they can manage and take care of the kids and the families that they have and how they can sort out and try to figure out what to do.
So let me talk through the solutions here. How do we solve this crisis that's going on currently with thousands and thousands of people illegally crossing the border every day? Well, somewhat we can start getting the message out which is already happening, that America is open to immigration if you do it legally. We have 1. 1 million people that go through the legal permanent residence process every single year. We have 700,000 people every single year that become citizens of the United States through a naturalized system. We have 500,000 people every day that legally cross the border from Mexico into the United States. Half a million every day legally did it. So one of the places that I stopped to be able to see was the legal border crossings and the international bridge. I watched individuals drive in, show their papers, go through the simple process, show a passport, show their visa, whatever it may be and drive across the border. Thousands of people lined up to do it, millions a year in each facility. I watched as people crossed the border on a pedestrian bridge, and as they crossed it with their paperwork, they were brought in. As they walked up to the bridge and they said ‘I’m asking for asylum,’ as they walked across the border on the international bridge and were taken into an air-conditioned room to start processing their asylum requests. That's happening every day right now. Yet everyone in the media is saying ‘that's not happening.’ The first thing we can do is start getting out accurate information of what is actually occurring at the border.
The second thing we can do is one of the primary issues the Border Patrol asks for over and over again and that was ‘fund ICE.’ Now, why would the Border Patrol ask for more funding for somebody else? Because ICE Is the primary entity that actually does detention. Border Patrol is the police station. ICE does detention. So when individuals are picked up at the border by Border Patrol, they are processed and immediately delivered to ICE. ICE then does detention for those individuals. They've got facilities scattered all over the country where they can house individuals in consistent housing with plenty of space, set up perfectly for that with well-trained individuals to be able to detain folks and to be able to go through that process. Border Patrol's number one request is, ‘please stop asking us to do detention. We don't have facilities for it. Clearly, that's why everyone is packed in. Allow ICE to be able to do this.’
Now, why doesn't ICE Have funding? Because it's been one of our biggest battles with our Democratic colleagues that are obsessed with defunding ICE. Over and over again they say they want to abolish ICE, defund ICE, get rid of ICE. What's really being stated there's no place to do detention when that occurs. Let me give you an example. In 2018 the request for ICE Was $3.6 billion. Actually what we could get at the end of it was just over $3 billion. There was $600 million down from what they said they needed. In 2019 the request was $3.5 billion. What they got was $3.1 billion. Again much less than what they needed. When the crisis began to hit in its highest portion and we finally got a humanitarian relief package to these individuals on the border to try to get additional support, including building the soft-sided facility, my democratic colleagues held out and refused to do any funding for ICE. In the humanitarian package, there was zero funding for ICE detention, none. When Border Patrol said ‘that is the prime thing that we need to actually solve this problem. What we need more than anything else is allow these folks to move out of these temporary facilities into long-term facilities so we can actually get them in better housing situations.’ But when we debated our way through this, our Democratic colleagues held firm and said ‘no funding for ICE detention.’ That perpetuates this problem on the border. We've got to solve this. They should be able to have the additional funding that they need so we can get these kids and these families into better locations for their housing, not temporary stopgap locations.
Next issue we need: we should move asylum officers to the border, one of the prime issues that Border Patrol wanted. Many of these individuals come and say ‘I want asylum.’ Well, let's walk them through the process. Let's get there. The problem is the vast majority of individuals that request asylum do not qualify actually for asylum. They're actually coming to the United States because they want to connect with family members that are here or economic opportunities or other opportunities, which I completely understand that. We have a legal process to do that. But you just can't come across the border and say ‘I’ve got a cousin that lives here,’ and that qualifies as asylum. That's not asylum. Only 15 percent of the people that cross the border asking for asylum actually qualify. But individuals will wait up to two years for a hearing to find out if they qualify. So the legitimate individuals that desperately need asylum and to be able to get through that process as rapidly as they can, can’t because 85 percent of the people are clogging the system up asking for things that are not asylum. We should move asylum officers closer to the border to be able to do faster processing so we can help individuals that seeking asylum get it and also identify people that are gaming the system and say ‘you cannot just game the system. You've got to come through the process legally.’
One more thing. We have to deal with this 20-day release issue. Right now the rule is you can only hold a family with a child or a child 20 days, total. That’s the only thing you can hold them—20 days. An after that, they have to be released into the country. The cartels and the human smugglers know that rule. And so that's why we've seen from 2014 only one percent of the men bringing a child to now 50 percent of the men bringing a child. Because they know you bring a child, you'll be released within 20 days. Here's what's different, though. In 20 days, we can do our record checks in the United States to say, does this person have a criminal record? But when we contact any of the 63 other countries that these individuals are coming from just in that sector, most of those countries can't respond to us with their country's criminal record within 20 days.
So what's really happening on the border is individuals are coming across with a child, they're being detained for 20 days while we request criminal records from their home country, they're there the 21st day we have to release them, and then 10 to 15 days later, we get word that individual actually has a murder warrant in their home country. That really happened just a few days ago. Also a few days ago we released an adult with a child and found out a few days later their home country was seeking them because they were a pedophile in their country. But we just released that adult with a child into our country because we have a 20-day restriction, and we can't wait until we get criminal records from another country. That is absurd. We are encouraging the trafficking of children by saying, you get into our country no matter what, if you just bring a child—and we're encouraging people to come in with a criminal record and bring a child—because they know that's their fast track to be able to get in because their home country can't fulfill it fast enough. Why would we do that as a country? Why would we knowingly, willingly do that?
We can solve this problem. It is a horrible humanitarian crisis. We need to pay attention to it and be logical about this. Stop saying ‘abolish ICE’ when what we really need is the ICE facilities to be able to help us be able to detain people in the best possible environments while we find out what the records are, who they are, whose related to who, and what their background is. Stop ignoring the obvious things. We have some people coming for poverty. We have some people coming to smuggle drugs. Until we can sort that out, we should figure out who's who. It doesn't seem irrational to me. And we should be able to find a way to process asylum requests much faster so individuals pursuing asylum can go through that process quickly and get processed and individuals that are gaming the system do not get to game the system.
We can do better at this. We have to do better at this. And I would encourage us to be serious about immigration in the days ahead. This Congress can solve this issue, but it won't because it's just a political game. And when it's about scoring political points rather than solving the humanitarian crisis, people in this body have to decide which one they want to do more.
I will never forget last year sitting with a bipartisan group of my colleagues, and as we discussed solutions to immigration, one of my Democratic colleagues said out loud, ‘I haven't decided what I want to do on this yet. There's an angel on one shoulder saying this problem needs to be solved, and there's a devil on my other shoulder saying, this is the greatest political weapon I have against the President. Why would I give it up? And I haven't decided which way I’m going to go yet’. I looked at them and said, ‘here's a basic rule of thumb I try to live by: when there is an angel and a devil talking to you, go with the angel every time.’ This is something we should do, and we should stop playing political games and trying to hurt the President and ignore the obvious solutions that we all should see. This is not a partisan issue. This is a humanity issue. Let's go solve it together.
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