Representatives of President Donald Trump’s administration asked senators Wednesday to close loopholes that they say tie their hands in trying to enforce immigration law.
If the reaction of Democrats on the Senate Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration is any indication, getting to the magic number of 60 votes in the Senate will be an uphill battle.
Democrats denied the loopholes even exist.
“These are not loopholes,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said. “They are laws that Congress passed to address the documented injustices facing children in our immigration system, specifically the government’s failure to treat these children humanely after decades and decades.”
At issue is the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which was designed to protect children from trafficking. Trump and many Republicans contend the well-intentioned law has led to a crisis of unaccompanied children from Central America arriving at the southwest border.
Under the law, children from countries other than Mexico and Canada must be allowed to make asylum claims in immigration court. And under a 1997 court settlement, children cannot be detained for longer than 72 hours.
Matthew Albence, executive associate director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) division, testified that Congress should address both issues. He said illegal immigrant children should be treated the same regardless of their country of origin.
He urged senators to allow for special immigration status only for children who cannot be reunited with either parent because of abuse, neglect or abandonment.
Albence said people wishing to come to the United States illegally “must know that there is no free pass should they get by the Border Patrol.”
Alysa Erichs, acting deputy executive associate director of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), told the panel the flow of unaccompanied youths — who are placed with sponsors throughout the United States while they await immigration court dates — includes violent gang members.
Erichs noted that HSI’s 32,900 criminal arrests in fiscal year 2017 included more than 4,800 transnational gang members. She said Operation Raging Bull — carried out earlier this year in the United States and abroad — netted 214 arrests in America. About 30 percent of those taken in to custody came here as unaccompanied children.
Operator Matador in New York resulted in the arrests of 400 gang members — including 280 from the notorious MS-13 gang— from May 2017 to May of this year. Of the 280 MS-13 members, 41 came as unaccompanied minors, Erichs said.
The panel held the hearing on the same day Trump met with officials on New York’s Long Island to discuss his administration’s efforts to confront MS-13 — including a plan to withhold foreign aid to countries that do not sufficiently cooperate on immigration matters.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) addressed the subcommittee in support of his proposal, the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act, to give the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) new tools to prevent suspected gang members from entering the United States and allow authorities to kick out immigrants with suspected gang ties.
The House of Representatives passed the bill last year.
“I think we can all agree that brutal gang members should not step foot in our country.”
“I think we can all agree that brutal gang members should not step foot in our country,” Heller said. “Those in our country found to be involved in these organizations must be expeditiously deported. And immigration authorities should be given the tools they need to remove them.”
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), the ranking minority member on the Senate subcommittee, said no lawmaker from either party supports MS-13.
“But does anyone believe that one of our most pressing security issues today would be children fleeing horrific violence in Central America?” he asked.
Durbin suggested that Heller’s bill would give “sweeping authority” to DHS to deport immigrants without even requiring proof of gang affiliation. He pointed to the case of Daniel Ramirez Medina, who lost protection of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program because of accused gang activity. A federal judge reversed that decision, however, after concluding that the government had provided no evidence of gang ties.
Durbin compared the Trump administration’s efforts to block refugees and Central Americans fleeing violence to an earlier generation of American government officials blocking entry of Jews fleeing the Holocaust. That is what led the United States to adopt its asylum laws, Durbin said.
“We said to the world, ‘We’re going to open our doors — not to everyone; we’re going to check who you are before you come in — but we’re going to let you know that America is a different nation than it was back before World War II,’” he said.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) expressed dismay that homeland security officials had separated some 700 children from their families and accused the Trump administration of “manufacturing a child welfare crisis.”
Menendez said the teenagers coming from Central America have good cause to do so.
“They are children, children fleeing unspeakable violence in their home countries … We’re talking about children, nearly a third under the age of 14,” he said.
Menendez said El Salvador and Honduras are among the most dangerous countries on earth.
“To be blunt — it’s stay and die, or flee and live,” he said.