On Senate Floor, Portman Discusses Recent Trip to U.S. Southern Border to See Migrant Crisis Firsthand

WASHINGTON, DC - This evening on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, discussed his recent trip to the southern border in El Paso, Texas, where he witnessed firsthand the ongoing migrant and unaccompanied children crisis. 

Senator Portman has made it clear that the Biden administration’s border crisis of unaccompanied children being detained at overcrowded Border Patrol stations is a direct result of its dismantling of the previous administration’s policies with no consideration of the ramifications of removing those policies and how it would incentivize migration. Portman urged the administration to change course soon and put in place smart policies that address the need for legal and orderly processes for migration and reduce the pull factors that encourage these migrant and young children to make the treacherous journey north, while also securing our borders and protecting the American people. 

A transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here

“I just returned from the southern border and want to give a brief report and talk about some potential ways forward to deal with what is happening on the Mexican border. I went with the Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, and also with the Chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, my colleague from Michigan and also with my colleague from West Virginia and my colleague from Connecticut, who are the Chair and Ranking Members of the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee. So we had a bipartisan group and those of us who were involved on the authorizing side and on the appropriations side. 

“You probably heard that the situation is bad, and it is. There’s a record number of unaccompanied children coming to our border today, being let in and ending up in Border Patrol detention facilities. Just yesterday, CBS reported that there were 15,900 unaccompanied kids in federal custody. That’s a record. But it’s not just children. More than 100,000 migrants were apprehended in February alone. That is a 15-year record, representing a 28 percent increase just since January. All the numbers from March look even higher. We won’t know the final numbers for another couple of weeks, but the point is, it’s getting worse, not better. These numbers, by the way, are worse than the previous two surges at our southern border, both the 2014 surge we all remember during the Obama administration and the 2019 surge during the Trump administration. And by the way, we have yet to reach the predicted peak because that would normally happen in April and May. In fact, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, who was with us on this trip, has said that he believes this will be the worst year in 20 years for unlawful entry into the United States. 

“However, the numbers only tell part of the story. This is also a humanitarian crisis. Migrants often face violence, sickness, and tough terrain on their dangerous journey north, predominately those from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. Many are abused by the smugglers that charge them large amounts of money and bring them. Unfortunately, this is a crisis that could have been avoided. On day one, the Biden administration issued five executive orders to overturn Trump policies and since have taken more than a half-dozen additional actions to dismantle policies from the previous administration. These included a 100-day pause on all deportations, no longer using the COVID-19 health care emergency under Title 42 of the U.S. Code to turn away unaccompanied children and some families, suspending the construction of the border fence and technology such as sensors and scanners used by the Trump administration to help our overworked Border Patrol agents secure key stretches of our southern border, and abandoning the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as Remain in Mexico, which required some asylum seekers at the southern border to wait in Mexico rather than in the United States while their claim for asylum was being processed. And, of course, proposing an amnesty bill on day one. 

“The administration has every right to do that. But it creates a disincentive to push back on new migrants coming in who are trying to get into the United States before that amnesty might become law. It certainly does unless you also make it clear that you don’t qualify for amnesty unless you’re already here. And I think that’s an important message that I hope will be a part of any future discussions about any kind of an amnesty bill so it doesn’t encourage more people to come. The Biden administration took these and other actions that incentivized people to head north but then said, ‘Please don’t come yet. We’re not ready for you.’ It was no surprise that didn’t work. 

“An unprecedented number of children and families came to take advantage of the new policies. As I heard on the southern border over the last few days, actions speak louder than words and the actions of the new administration was clear. These abrupt moves to dismantle the immigration policies that were working to provide a disincentive for unlawful migrations gave the green light to a lot of people seeking a better life, but it also gave the smugglers and the human trafficking groups in the Northern Triangle and in Mexico, the ability to convince more families and more children to take the dangerous trip north. It gave them a narrative. And, of course, they’ve used it to their full advantage. That has overwhelmed Border Patrol, and our immigration system in general, unequipped to handle the surge. I heard directly from Border Patrol agents about how the current surge of unaccompanied kids is straining resources, endangering not just those vulnerable kids, but also the security of our own border. It was stunning to see people who unlawfully crossed the border during a ride-along patrol I joined on Thursday night. People just kept coming. 

“The Border Patrol told me they were seeing an increase of about 150 to 200 percent of illegal entries in the El Paso sector, with many illegal crossers escaping into the United States because they have not apprehended them. Just as concerning, they told me unaccompanied children and families are being used by the smugglers as a distraction so the smugglers can more easily move dangerous and illicit substances across the border into our communities. While the Border Patrol is busy processing the kids and the families, which takes a while, the smugglers move. In fact, Customs and Border Protection has reported an increase of 360 percent in seizures of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is 50 times deadlier than heroin. There is no question that more of this is now coming across the border. It is already resulting in a surge of overdose deaths, by the way, over the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic. In my home state of Ohio and around the country it looks like, sadly, we’re in for a record year of overdoses and overdose deaths primarily from fentanyl and fentanyl being mixed with other drugs. Fentanyl used to come from China directly, mostly through our mail system. Now, increasingly, it’s coming from Mexico since we’ve passed legislation here to stop it from coming through our mail system. 

“Down at the border, I also had the opportunity to visit the facilities where they are currently holding unaccompanied kids. These children are being kept in tightly packed facilities, supervised by overworked Border Patrol agents, law enforcement who should be out on the field. Due to a lack of space for children in the Department of Health and Human Services facilities, Border Patrol is having to detain unaccompanied kids for an average of about 137 hours, nearly double the 72-hour limit required by law. I’m concerned about the well-being of these kids, as we all are, because when the system gets overwhelmed, people and especially the kids, suffer. And the processing system right now is overwhelmed. It’s overcrowded, it’s irresponsible, it’s a situation you would never want your own children to be in. Not only are these children crammed into facilities that are by their own rules and regulations overcrowded, there’s no testing for COVID-19 in these facilities. Current policy is going to result in tens of thousands more children being released to our communities waiting for their immigration court cases. During previous surges at the border that overwhelmed our immigration system, HHS stopped doing background checks on sponsors for unaccompanied kids and many fell into the custody of abusive human traffickers. In 2014, for example, HHS placed Guatemalan children with criminals who put the children into forced labor on an egg farm in my home state of Ohio where they were forced to live and work in squalid conditions. 

“It’s an issue I’ve worked a long time on. Between 2015 and 2020, as Chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, I led three bipartisan reports and hearings across two administrations that found repeated failures by the federal government to ensure the well-being of these vulnerable children once they were handed off to sponsors, as well as the fundamental refusal by HHS to accept that they were responsible for the welfare of these kids they placed with adults who were not their legal parent or guardian. Obviously, we’re going to see a lot more pressure to get these kids out to as many sponsors as quickly as possible, and again, I believe we’re going to have some of these problems. 

“Last week I introduced bipartisan legislation called the Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act that will direct the federal government to meet the stringent requirements necessary to ensure children are not abused or exploited by their sponsors, that they show up for their asylum hearings to determine their eligibility to stay in the United States. These are necessary steps to address the current crisis at our border and safeguard these children. 

“By the way, on the debate as to whether to call the chaos at the border a crisis or not, when I was on the border talking to Border Patrol agents, one of them told me, although he believes it is a crisis, that he’s fine not calling it a crisis now, because he knows it’s going to get much worse and he wants to have something to call it then. He wants to see, like all Americans, concrete actions and a change of course at the border, much more than having a debate about words. 

“By the way, we should all sympathize with those migrants who want a better life for their family. I sympathize with them. I’m sure we all do. There are millions of people around the world who would like to come to our country. We have a legal immigration system that accepts about a million people a year. In addition to that, we accept refugees and those who apply for asylum. But at the end of the day, these individuals who are coming to our southern border now are making a rational choice to come to the border based on policy decisions by the Biden administration. 

“What we need is a legal, orderly, and proper system to be sure that people follow the rules. The bottom line is that what I saw at the border is unsustainable. And unfortunately, it’s going to get worse. We’re working against the clock to try to find a way forward. When the Biden administration changed the rules and dismantled the existing provisions which were keeping people from coming across the border, they could have put their own policies in place to try to deal with what everybody predicted was a surge that was coming. They didn’t. More to the point, even if they weren’t going to put their own policies in place, they should surely have waited until they had the facilities ready to handle a surge. They didn’t. And that’s why you see this terrible overcrowding at the Border Patrol detention facilities that are holding these kids much longer than they should and why you see HHS not having the beds prepared that they should have. 

“By the way, some have said the Trump administration dismantled the asylum system. Well, because of the rules they have in place, there were very few people coming to apply for asylum. But the facility that I saw, which was a modern facility built just last year with $48 million of our taxpayer money, was built to try to deal with the next surge. Unfortunately, it’s not big enough. And again it’s overcrowded, so you have kids sleeping on the floor, on thin foam mattresses with only a space blanket. None of them have been checked for COVID. They’re living not 6 feet apart as we’re required to do here with social distancing, but inches apart and together. So it’s one thing to say we’re going to change all these policies. It’s another thing to say we’re not going to put anything in its place or because that’s okay, we’re okay to have a surge come, at least to be prepared for that surge. And that’s not what’s happened. 

“I believe there is a path forward for the Biden administration and Congress to address this crisis in the short term, then work on medium and long-term solutions to lower the risk of future surges. 

“Here’s what I would propose. First, and foremost, the Biden administration should recommit to enforcing our immigration laws by providing overwhelmed Border Patrol agents and our Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials the help they need to be able to ensure that they can get what they need to be able to enforce the law. That means better pay for our Border Patrol. It also means better overtime provisions. We’ve got legislation to do that. It also means ensuring that they have the tools they need to be able to protect our country. That means not stopping construction of the fence, which by the way, is almost done. In the El Paso sector, I think there’s 150 miles of fence in total, 124 miles is already done. The part that’s not done unfortunately is some of the gates. So you have gaps. Border Patrol are very frustrated about this because they literally have to have people there at the gaps. They can’t monitor it as they can with the fence, because with the fence, it takes people a while to get over the fence. And with the monitoring devices which are, to me, more important even than the fence itself, they’re able to do their job. 

“They’re also being told they can’t continue the technology, so although there’s 124 miles of fences, there’s much less technology than that and yet they’ve been stopped from doing that as well. So let’s give them what they need to be able to do their job. They’re in an impossible situation. I’m not talking about a new fence or a new wall but at least for the part that’s already been appropriated by Congress, let’s complete it. Let’s not leave these gaps. I literally saw the supplies, the construction material on the ground and the Border Patrol agents told me -- these are rank and file Border Patrol agents – ‘This is bad for morale. We see the stuff right there. If that could be put up to take the place of the temporary fencing that migrants are able to simply push over or to walk through, that would make our jobs much easier.’ 

“Number two, the asylum system needs to be changed immediately. Now, with a backlog of 1.2 million asylum seekers, they’re waiting several years before their court hearings to find out if they qualify. And during that time, they’re living in the United States and often vanishing into the United States. We know from the data that we have – and by the way, the data is not very good on this – that only about half of them, maybe more or maybe less are even showing up for their court cases. We know this because for about 48 percent of those who are seeking asylum, there are now removal orders out for them for not showing up for their hearings. So about half of them have removal orders to be removed from the country because they haven’t shown up for their hearings. Now remember, a 1.2 million person backlog, so it may be three, four, five, six years before they get to their court case. Is it any wonder that some of these people aren’t showing up? 

“Finally, at the very end of the process, after you go through all the adjudication, guess what the percentage success would be for someone to achieve asylum status? Only 15 percent, 15 percent, have a successful claim. So people are being told, ‘Go into the country and await your court case.’ 1.2 million people are doing that. It takes several years for that to happen. And at the end of the day, only 15 percent are getting asylum. And yet again, many are not being removed, even though there’s a removal order out on them because the immigration system is overwhelmed. So they’re focusing on those who have a criminal record, which I understand. But this means that if you don’t have a criminal record and you’re in the United States, you know that it’s unlikely you actually will be removed even if there’s a removal order for you. 

“So one policy change would be to simply resume a practice that was started in the last administration as a pilot and ended in November of 2020. It’s called the Prompt Asylum Claim Review Process, an efficient and timely determination of who’s eligible for asylum and who’s not. It would really help. It would enable us to start reducing the number of migrants being held in custody and it would also deter migrants who do not have a valid claim. Now, you might say, ‘Well, why not start with the 1.2 million backlog?’ That would be great and we should do that as well. We need more immigration judges, we need more lawyers who are involved in the process on both sides, representing those who have the claim and representing the government. That would be good. 

“But in the meantime, these rapid adjudications on the border with due process would have the effect of deterring the next migrant. Think about it. If you’re just dealing with the last person on the list, the person that comes in most recently, it’s more of a deterrent than if you’re dealing with the person who came in four or five years ago. Because you think, ‘Well if I get up there and make my claim, and go out into the United States and into one of the communities represented in the body, then it’s going to be four or five years before my court case comes up. Perhaps it will be an amnesty during that period, or something else, or perhaps I’ll just stay.’ But if you say, ‘If you come to the border and seek amnesty and you seek asylum, your claim will be adjudicated immediately. And you may receive asylum or you may not.’ Again, 15 percent is the number now. That’s the best number we have. That’s from 2019. We don’t have the numbers from 2020 yet but most think that’s about what it will be. So I think this is a good system. I don’t know why it was ended in the Trump administration back in November, it shouldn’t have been and I hope the new administration will take it up. 

“As part of this, my colleagues from Texas and Arizona, Senator Cornyn and Senator Sinema, have suggested we stand up multiple regional processing centers to rapidly and fairly conduct asylum cases in one location. I support that. I think this idea is consistent with what I’m talking about to discourage illegal immigration and to ensure that we have a quick decision with regard to asylum. Have all the federal agencies together. Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, ICE, the Justice Department, everybody together in one place, HHS, and quickly make these decisions so that people aren’t held for a long period of time and so they can have the decision made. I think it’s worth the funding because it will be expensive. It will be expensive to hire the new immigration judges, to have the system set up, but it’s well worth it in my view. 

“Third, to deal with the asylum process, the Biden administration should look at the new Migrant Protection Protocol, or Remain in Mexico policy. Remain in Mexico allowed us to keep our detention center populations down in the United States and asylum seekers close to the immigration courts while officials sorted out the claims. Getting rid of the policy only served to overcrowd our temporary housing and sent a lot more people into the interior awaiting a hearing by an immigration judge. There are concerns about remain in Mexico in terms of the conditions at some of the camps in Mexico. And although nongovernmental organizations play a substantial role there already, perhaps for those who are still in that process, and there are probably 45,000 people who are still in that process, there are initially -- or maybe less -- but initially there were about 75,000 people. A lot of people had just gone home because they don’t want to remain in Mexico for their asylum claim. They’d rather go back to their home in the Northern Triangle countries, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. But for those who are there, perhaps there should be more oversight of those camps and more federal funding provided through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, and others to ensure that those conditions are better. 

“But what the Biden administration is doing now is saying, ‘We’re going to stop the program and they’re bringing people over the border.’ I saw this at the processing center. About 350 or 400 people a day are leaving the Remain in Mexico, the Migrant Protection Protocol program and coming into the United States. Those people are given the ability to come into the interior so they’re coming into communities in the United States. One thing you would hope that they would get would be a notice as they go through the processing that says, ‘Here’s your court date. You have to show up at this court date.’ What we’ve learned in the last several days and what I learned down at the border is they’re not being given those court dates. They’re given a piece of paper that has 24 ICE offices in the major metropolitan areas of America and they’re told, ‘We don’t know where you’re going to end up. We don’t know where you’re going. You’re welcome to the United States but wherever you’re going, please check into the ICE office in your region.’ So my hope is we can at least get a system together where we don’t, again, dismantle a program until we have something in its place and to ensure people are going to their court dates to be able to have the asylum claim dealt with. 

“So on my trip to the border, I asked a reporter to come with me to the border wall. Because I believe it’s important that the public know what’s going on. I was surprised to learn that was the first time this reporter or other reporters had been able to kind of see what was going on for quite a while. They haven’t been able to come into any of the detention facilities, including the processing center I talked about earlier where a hundred kids are crammed into one room. I think the press should be able to see that because I think that will provide more transparency for all of us. My constituents don’t know what’s going on at the border in part because the media haven’t had that level of access. So I know we have to protect the confidentiality of individual migrants and I get that. I think that should be done, but I think it can be done but also by letting the media have that access to be able to have more transparency about the realities of what’s going on along the border. 

“So fourth, I think the Biden administration should invest in finishing the work on the fence as I said, but they should also work to enact something that’s even more important than a fence. And that is to relieve the magnet. This is going to involve Congress. We did pass the immigration bill in this body with a strong provision called E-Verify several years ago. It basically says that for employers, there will be a sanction if you hire somebody who is not legal. And the difference with E-Verify and some of the earlier programs that attempted to do that unsuccessfully is that E-Verify lets us use the new technologies we now have to ensure that the fraudulent documents that are often used can be determined to be fraudulent. In other words, you can use technology, facial recognition, and so on to ensure that the employer knows for sure whether the person is legal or not. Again, this requires some federal funding. Because some of that software for small businesses in particular may be expensive. But to have an E-Verify program that says you mandatorily -- by the way, it’s not mandatory right now either, so it does not have the technology, it’s not mandatory. You have got to make it mandatory and to say if you want to hire somebody, you’ve got to run them through the system. Make it as easy as possible. Use the technology. 

“You know, in talking to the migrants I met -- and my colleagues have spoken to many people who have come to this country and I’m sure they have the same experience -- when I asked them why they’re coming here, they all had the same answer basically with slight variations, which is -- as one guy told me from Guatemala, he can make ten times as much money here. He cares about his family and their future. The economy is much better here. That’s because he knows he can get a job, probably with a document, either a driver’s license or social security card, it will be fraudulent but he can buy it for $25. So we need a system here to stop the magnet, right? Don’t put the Border Patrol and all those involved in the immigration system in such an impossible position that we have a wide-open system here where anybody can come and work.

“Let’s do E-Verify. That’s more important to me than any other enforcement tool that we have. Federal Reserve economists found that states that mandate the use of E-Verify reduce the number of likely unauthorized immigrants who stay in that state. Of course it does. 

“Sixth, -- and this is the final one -- the Biden administration should work with our Central American partners, including the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, to discourage unlawful migration. They can do that by incentivizing migrants to apply for asylum in their countries of origin. Some have said this should be mandatory. To me, that seems to make sense. But maybe there is a reason it shouldn’t be mandatory, but it certainly should be encouraged, and these countries should certainly offer this. We should provide more aid to the countries of Central America because there is a push factor. Everything I have talked about so far is the pull factors, bringing them in. But if we do that, that aid ought to be conditioned on them helping us to provide people the ability to seek asylum in their own country. And where they have such a fear of persecution that they can’t do it in their own country, they should be able to do it in a third country. 

“There was a program started in the Trump administration, never really got off the ground, it was called Safe Third Country. And the program with Guatemala was starting to work. Honduras and El Salvador had signed up but it hadn’t started to work yet. Mexico didn’t provide it. But what it says basically is if you cross through a third country, you have to seek asylum in that third country. And specifically with Guatemala, as you know, you have to go through Guatemala coming from Honduras, or El Salvador, or Ecuador or elsewhere, why not have the asylum claims done there? Again, due process, yes, but don’t make people take this long and treacherous journey up to the southern border of the United States. Don’t make them go through this process of the detention facilities and so on. Have them seek asylum in their own countries or in other countries. That to me seems like it makes a lot of sense. The Biden administration suspended the Safe Third Country program on February 6 shortly after the inauguration. 

“One program that they would like to restart that I think makes sense is called the Central American Minor Program. They’re going to restart that program now, starting in March. This is a program where, during the Obama administration if you had a family member, a parent -- it had to be a parent or a guardian in the United States legally -- then you could come through this program called CAM, the Central American Minors program. I’m glad they have restarted that program. That makes sense. I will tell you over five years, only 3,500 kids were processed in that program. Because again, your parent has to be in the United States legally. 3,500 kids are coming across our border every nine days right now. So the program is not going to solve all our problems, but it will help, and that’s a good idea. 

“We need to take a hard look at all of this. All these pull factors we talked about, certainly at the push factors. I will say the Biden administration has proposed $4 billion to go to these three countries, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. As a Congress, we have appropriated, and $3.6 billion has been spent, in the last five years in these three countries. So we have done almost that much in the last five years. And yet, because of the corruption, because of the lack of transparency, because of a lack of rule of law, the money has not been as effectively spent as it should be. So we have got to be sure that the money is conditioned upon reforms to actually improve the lives of the individuals in those countries despite the corruption, we need to cut through that and say, ‘If you take this money, you have got to commit to the reforms.’ And second, again, it should be contingent upon helping with our asylum system, to be sure that we can deal with this surge that we’re now facing. 

“If the Biden administration takes these six recommended actions I have laid out today, I believe we would move towards bringing a quicker end to this crisis on the border, and we would be able to secure our southern border with regard to the drugs that are coming over and other contraband, and be able to say that we together worked on this. I know this is a time where everybody is in their corners, Republicans and Democrats, and it’s impossible, it seems like, to make progress. But I think these are pretty sensible ideas. And the alternative is a bad one -- that this is going to get worse. You will have more and more kids in detention centers. You will have more and more families released to communities in the United States where they don’t come forward for their hearings. It’s something that discourages people about our immigration system. It just doesn’t seem to work. It’s certainly not working on the border today. So my hope is that these ideas or others -- maybe others in this chamber have better ideas, but hopefully they can be bipartisan. We can get some of this stuff done and actually deal with the crisis we all know exists and we have a responsibility to face.” 

###