A senior Border Patrol agent told a Senate hearing yesterday of dire conditions along the Texas border. But the conflicting concerns expressed by Democratic and Republican senators provided no reason for optimism that Congress will agree on legislation to address the surging influx of Central American asylum seekers drawn northward by the near certainty that they will be released into the United States to await court hearings that could be years away.
"In my 30 years as an agent, I have never witnessed the conditions we are currently facing on the Southwest border," said Rodolfo Karisch, chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley Sector, which is responsible for 320 miles of the nearly 2,000-mile U.S. border with Mexico. Karisch and others at the hearing said smugglers are marketing their services across Central America, spreading word of a virtually open border for those who come north with a child and ask for asylum.
During the past six months, the Border Patrol has apprehended some 192,000 "family units" — consisting of at least one parent and one child — along with 32,000 unaccompanied children. This new pattern is a sharp departure from the decades-old pattern of arresting males traveling individually. The responsibility to care for those migrants while they are processed and screened has forced a massive redirection of Border Patrol agents and resources away from their usual responsibilities for border security.
Karisch told the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that in 2014, before the influx from Central America began to intensify, less than 1 percent of the men apprehended after crossing the border illegally came with a child. "Right now, its 50 percent," he said. He described "fraudulent family units", formed by migrants traveling with children who were not their own. He also discussed smugglers' use of "recycled children" — who after being used to help one set of bogus parents be released are then taken back to Mexico to form another bogus unit and repeat the process.
The senators' responses to the testimony divided along sharply partisan lines. While Republicans said there was an urgent need for congressional legislation to close legal loopholes in order to stem the influx, the Democrats were most concerned about what they called the heartless policies of the Trump administration and the disorder that has roiled the Department of Homeland Security.
Committee chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) said the committee should take the lead in fashioning legislation to deal with the "humanitarian and national security crisis" at the border. "The blame for this rests with Congress, which sits idly by while the crisis grows," Johnson said. Oklahoma Republican James Lankford, pointing to the role of smuggling operations in organizing the influx said, "Our laws are incentivizing them," and must be changed.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California set the tone for the committee's Democrats as she focused on allegations of mistreatment of children who have been held in federal custody before being reunited with their families. She was followed by Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada, who invoked the troubled history of U.S. treatment of asylum seekers. "As the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, I can't help but think about the time in the middle of the twentieth century when the U.S. used security concerns as an excuse to turn away thousands of refugees fleeing Europe," she said. Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware cited the Bible's call for kindness to strangers and urged attention to "the greatest commandment of all ... the golden rule to treat everyone the way we want to be treated."
In his opening statement, Johnson sought to make the case for bipartisan cooperation. "Our compassionate asylum system is being exploited — by economic migrants, drug cartels, human smugglers, and other bad actors — because we do not have the will and skill to fix it. ... If you do not support this new reality of open borders, work with me to fix our flawed immigration system."
One Democrat who explicitly indicated a willingness to work with Johnson was Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan. "We need to reduce the backlogs in processing asylum claims," Peters said. "Screening interviews are being delayed. The average wait to appear before an immigration court is now over two years and the backlog is quickly approaching one million cases. This is unacceptable."
But Peters said such action required an orderly and credible approach from the Trump administration. He said Trump's recent shakeup of the Department of Homeland Security has produced "nothing but more chaos".