The nation’s acting homeland security chief defended the U.S. Border Patrol against political attacks in testimony at a House hearing Thursday where he also denounced some employees’ unprofessional conduct on Facebook.
“The incendiary and overwrought attacks on the men and women securing our border and enforcing immigration laws in the interior are unwarranted and damaging,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said in opening remarks.
During the hearing, Democrats repeatedly criticized the Trump administration and the Department of Homeland Security for detaining illegal immigrants and their children, and for a discarded “zero tolerance” policy that led to separating families.
Republicans focused on inaction by Congress to address a legal technicality that creates problems for the government in processing children apprehended at the border.
Here are four big takeaways from the hearing held by the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
1. Rhetoric Request Unheeded
McAleenan called on members of Congress to calm the rhetoric targeting agents who work for Customs and Border Protection or for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, both parts of the Department of Homeland Security.
“The demonization of law enforcement professionals, U.S. Border Patrol agents, CBP and ICE officers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, from all faiths and callings, who had chosen a career about protecting others, must stop,” McAleenan said in his prepared remarks.
He noted that Border Patrol agents face difficult challenges, having encountered more than 800,000 migrants crossing the southern border since Oct. 1, and 90% of them not using an official port of entry.
More than 450,000 of those apprehended since October were members of family units and more than 80,000 were unaccompanied children, McAleenan said. The total of 300,000 children is almost as many as all those of all ages apprehended in fiscal year 2017, he said.
Still, critics, including members of Congress, have compared immigration authorities and detention facilities to those who ran concentration camps, or death camps, for Nazi Germany.
“These false and misleading attacks are not helping to resolve the crisis,” the acting homeland security secretary said, adding:
They diminish the public’s understanding and cloud its perception of what is happening. We need, Mr. Chairman, to regain our balance. We need to understand what is incentivizing and driving migrants to put themselves in the hands of dangerous smugglers and embark on this perilous journey to our border, in order to have a real discussion on how to solve the problem.
McAleenan asked that Congress close legal loopholes in the immigration system so that DHS can keep migrant families together while their cases are being adjudicated.
In 1997, the Clinton administration entered into a legal pact called the Flores Settlement Agreement to end a class action lawsuit first brought in the 1980s.
The settlement established a policy that the federal government would release unaccompanied border-crossing minors to their parents, relatives, or other caretakers after no more than 20 days—or, alternatively, determine the “least restrictive” setting for a child.
In a separate development, the Democrat-controlled Congress in 2008 approved bipartisan legislation to combat human trafficking, which President George W. Bush, a Republican, signed into law.
Section 235(g) of that law, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, states that unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. must be transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, rather than to the Department of Homeland Security.
In 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit expanded the Flores settlement to include children brought to the country illegally by their parents. For consistency between the anti-trafficking law and the 9th Circuit’s interpretation of the Flores agreement, officials decided that children who came into the country illegally with parents had to be taken into HHS custody.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the oversight committee, referred to a recent violent attack on an ICE detention center for illegal immigrants in Washington state.
“Earlier this week, a self-proclaimed member of Antifa showed up at an ICE detention center outside of Seattle, set cars on fire, and attempted to burn down the building,” Jordan said. “In his written manifesto, this Antifa member wrote that he felt it was necessary to take action against these ‘concentration camps.’”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., repeatedly has called ICE detention centers “concentration camps.”
2. ‘Deficit of Empathy’
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the committee, launched into an outraged speech midway through the hearing, arguing that the topic at hand was being “sugar coated.”
Cummings said he plans to tour the border.
“I’m at a point where I begin to wonder whether there is an empathy deficit,” he said.
The Maryland Democrat cited a federal court ruling and said DHS is better at tracking illegal immigrants’ personal property than tracking their children.
“So you could find their keys, but you could not find their children,” Cummings shouted. “I’m talking about human beings. I’m not talking about people when they come from, as the president said, S-holes. These are human beings just trying to live a better life.”
At one point, McAleenan responded by saying: “We’re doing our level best.”
Cummings cut him off, saying: “What does that mean when a child is sitting in their own feces and can’t take a shower?”
None of us would have our children in that position. They are human beings. I am tired of people saying, ‘Oh, they’re just beating up the Border Patrol.’ What I’m saying is I want to concentrate on these children, and I want to make sure that they’re OK. It’s not the deed that you do to a child, it’s the memory.
Later in the hearing, Jordan asked McAleenan whether he wanted to respond to the chairman’s rhetoric.
“Why would an agency, if they had a deficit of empathy, create a border search, trauma and rescue team to try to protect people who are trying to make this dangerous crossing?” McAleenan answered.
“We make over 4,000 rescues a year on their own time with the collateral duty applied to the emergency medical technicians, so they can help people in dangerous conditions,” McAleenan said. “Where is the deficit of empathy there? These are predominantly Latino Border Patrol agents. They have children of their own and they are out there trying to protect them, putting their lives on the line.”
McAleenan explained earlier that the Trump administration no longer separates families after dropping that part of the zero tolerance policy.
“These prosecutions, as all criminal prosecutions do, resulted in temporary separation of parents and children,” he said, adding:
This practice lasted six weeks, and ended 13 months ago, and has been the subject of ongoing litigation, congressional hearings, committee and inspector general reports, and hundreds of media stories. I have personally testified at a number of these hearings and in several media appearances, answered questions about it.
I have acknowledged that this initiative, while well intended, lost the public trust, and that President Trump was right to end it. Under current practice, governed by both court order along with operational guidance, separation[s] of parents and guardians and the children they cross with are rare and are undertaken in the interest and the best intentions of the child.
3. ‘Dehumanizing Culture’
McAleenan said Customs and Border Protection plans to wrap up an investigation by the end of this month or early August on government employees involved in a Facebook group with 9,500 members that featured racist and violent posts.
“CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility initiated an investigation within hours of those allegations coming to light,” he said. “They’ve already placed a number of individuals under investigation. They’ve put several on administrative duties. They’ve issued cease-and-desist letters and moved very quickly to hold people accountable for conduct that doesn’t meet our standards.”
Ocasio-Cortez began asking about the Facebook page from a personal perspective.
“Did you see the images of officers circulating photoshopped images of my violent rape?” she asked.
McAleenan said he had.
“Are those officers on the job today and responsible for the safety of migrant women and children?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.
McAleenan repeated that an “aggressive investigation” is underway:
You’ve heard the chief of the Border Patrol [Carla Provost], the most senior female official in federal law enforcement across the entire country, say these posts do not meet our standards of conduct and they will be followed up aggressively. We’ve already put individuals on administrative duties. I don’t know which ones correspond with which post and we’ve issued cease-and-desist orders to dozens.
Ocasio-Cortez made a connection between the old zero tolerance policy and the Facebook group.
“Do you think that the policy of child separation could have contributed to a dehumanizing culture within CBP that contributes and spills over into other areas of conduct?”
McAleenan replied: “We do not have a dehumanizing culture at CBP. This is an agency that rescues 4,000 people a year, that’s absolutely committed to the well-being of everyone they interact with.”
4. Fraudulent Families
Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., asked about the problem of adults using children as a ticket to be released into the interior of the U.S., noting that these often are not real families.
“In fiscal year 2019, the Department of Homeland Security identified nearly 5,500 migrants presenting as family units that turned out to be fraudulent,” Miller said. “Why would adults use children to help them cross the border?”
McAleenan said that is something the Border Patrol finds all too often.
“It’s been a big focus this year to identify those adults that are bringing children with them that are not their own, to try to take advantage of what they perceive as a loophole in our law that would allow them to be released in the United States,” he said.
“We’ve had egregious cases, including a 51-year-old man who bought a 6-month-old child for $80 in Guatemala and admitted that when confronted with a DNA test by a Homeland Security investigations agent.”