Johnson Continues Border Hearing Series: Assessing the government’s response to unaccompanied minors

WASHINGTON  — More than 51,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the U.S.-Mexico border last summer. Assessing the situation one year later, Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) noted in his written opening statement that fewer than 2,000 have been repatriated to their home countries in Central America. Tuesday’s hearing, held by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, sought to understand the various roles of three federal departments and five component agencies in overseeing the unaccompanied minors and why the repatriation rate of unaccompanied minors is so low. 

Undisputed at Tuesday’s hearing: There was a drastic spike in arrivals of unaccompanied children into the U.S. after the implementation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. Additionally, there has been a steady decrease in removals of these minors since 2009, hovering somewhere between 2 to 10 percent in 2015, Chairman Johnson noted. 

Why have so many orders of removal not been followed through, Johnson asked Philip Miller, assistant director of field operations for enforcement and removal operations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This year, only 1,500 out of 6,800 orders have been carried out. 

“As a police manager, I have to look at all of the cases we have to work,” Miller responded, “and I can tell you, if I’m going to task my officers with going out after criminals that are at large in our community or going out after juveniles who are non-criminals in our community, I think it’s good policing to go after the criminals.” 

Johnson then asked Miller to square his claim that ICE is prioritizing dangerous criminals over juveniles with incidents such as the recent slaying in San Francisco. Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an illegal immigrant previously convicted of seven felonies and deported five times, was released from federal custody and turned over to local authorities in San Francisco. They later released Lopez-Sanchez before he was accused in the slaying of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle. 

According to ICE data,” Johnson said, “from fiscal year 2010 through fiscal year 2014, 121 criminal aliens were released and have been subsequently charged with a homicide related offenses. What do you have to say about that lack of enforcement?” 

“We seek to resolve all criminal warrants before we go forward with removal,” Miller told Johnson. “In that particular case, the gentleman had an outstanding federal narcotics warrants, and we feel strongly that the Bureau of Prisoners (BOP) made the right decision by trying to resolve the criminal warrant before we were allowed to take further civil action.” 

“So he has another criminal warrant, but he was released into general society to commit a murder,” Johnson said. “That doesn’t make any sense to the American public.” 

Also testifying at Tuesday’s hearing was Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Juan Osuna, director of the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), and Joseph Langlois, associate director of Refugee, Asylum and International Operations for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). 

Johnson asked Greenberg if HHS checks the legal status of potential sponsors and if the agency will turn unaccompanied children over to illegal immigrant parents. 

Greenberg said yes. 

“Do you tell DHS or ICE that you have just placed a child with somebody that you know is in this country illegally?” Johnson asked, having to press Greenberg for an answer. “Do you tell them that – yes or no?” 

Greenberg, repeatedly refusing to give a yes or no answer, responded, “We will provide the information upon their request.” 

“So that’s a no, then,” Johnson said. 

Greenberg testified to the committee that unaccompanied children have the privilege of legal representation at no expense to the government. “But then you’re talking about requests for quotation on legal services,” Johnson said. “If current law is that there can be no expense to the government yet we are issuing grants for people to provide legal representation, how do you, I guess, get around the law?” 

Greenberg said HHS is complying with the law in their requests – that the law makes clear that HHS should be using pro-bono resources for legal representation of unaccompanied minors. 

So the agency is requesting money to pay for legal representation because the law says it can, yet the law also says the legal representation should be at no expense to the government, Johnson said. “That sounds like a real conflict in the law.” 

Let’s start making the incremental improvements. … I understand that you’re dealing with the laws that we’ve got – that’s what we have to deal with,” Johnson later said. “Let’s prioritize those individual problems that we can address and start fixing this on a step by step basis.” 

The chairman’s opening statement can be found here

The full hearing video can be seen here