On Senate Floor, Portman Calls on Biden Administration to Address Unaccompanied Children Surge Crisis at Southern Border

WASHINGTON, DC – Today on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, spoke on the current surge in unaccompanied children (UACs) at our southern border and the concerning reports about the facilities in which they are housed. A number of troubling news reports have highlighted the rising number of UACs at the border, and Portman made 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 the previous administration’s policies with no consideration of the ramifications of removing those policies and how it would incentivize migration. Portman expressed hope that the administration will change course soon and put in place smart policies that address the need for legal and orderly processes for migration, while also securing our borders and protecting the American people. Yesterday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released operational statistics for February 2021 on the massive influx of unaccompanied children at our southern border. In response, Portman urged the Biden administration to step up efforts to collaborate with international partners – including the governments in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – to address this challenge, discourage migration, and provide alternatives for those seeking to make the dangerous journey north. 

Portman also expressed concern for the safety and security of UACs as well as the housing conditions under which UACs are being held, especially given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Over the course of two administrations, Portman, as then-Chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, built a record of bipartisan oversight on the safety of unaccompanied children as well as the grant process for shelter facilities. As Portman’s oversight has shown, federal agencies must collect background information, including fingerprint checks, to ensure the safety and security of vulnerable UACs, and he is concerned that reports have stated that the Biden Administration may remove these critical protections in an effort to expedite processing and placement with sponsors. Portman made clear that the U.S. federal government should not repeat the mistakes of prior administrations and hand these vulnerable children off to traffickers or other abusive situations, and there must be accountability to ensure the government can keep track of the children as they make their way through the legal system. 

Portman urged the Biden Administration to address the influx of unaccompanied children, secure the border, and ensure the safety of the unaccompanied children especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

A transcript of the speech can be found below and a video can be found here.

“I’m here on the floor today to talk about the unfolding, urgent situation on our southern border, and I do so as the Ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. This includes this unfortunate situation at the border, it includes a lot of kids coming over the border. UACs as they call them, unaccompanied children. These children are making a long and dangerous journey north, putting themselves at risk and bringing our immigration system and our shelter system along the border to a breaking point.  

“You may have heard that the Biden Administration insists this is not a crisis. But here are the facts. You decide. 

“This chart shows the dire situation that we’re in. On Tuesday, the most recent confirmed information we have, there were 3,400 of these children in Border Patrol custody. Ten days ago, that number was 1,700. So in ten days, this number has doubled. To put this in perspective, at the very height of the border crisis in 2019 that we all remember being talked about a lot on the floor of this Senate and around the country, families and children were coming in in big numbers. At the very height, it was 2,600 unaccompanied kids. Again today, based on some information we just received, anecdotally from the Customs and Border Protection folks, it’s over 3,500. So it’s a 35 percent increase even from where it was during the crisis. And it’s growing. 

“Under law, these children have to be transferred to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, HHS, within 72 hours of their being apprehended. And why? We had that law in place to be able to help protect these kids. So instead of being in a Border Patrol detention facility — by the way, which were all designed for single males and don’t have any separation, don’t have any trained people to help provide care to children, it’s law enforcement officers, Border Patrol agents — but within 72 hours we had said that you have to transfer these children to a Health and Human Services facility that’s appropriate for children. 

“So how’s that working? Again, as of Tuesday, there were 3,400 of these kids in Border Patrol custody in the wrong kind of detention facilities for children. There were 2,800 children who were ready to transfer to HHS — in other words, they had been screened, gone through a process. But as of Tuesday, there were 500 beds available, meaning 2,300 children are remaining in Border Control custody in overcrowded, adult facilities, without proper care, because there’s nowhere to take them. So, look, it’s a bad situation. 

“HHS contractors are supposed to be trained to care for the kids. Border Patrol agents are not trained in that. They’re doing their best, but it’s not a good, safe situation for the kids. By the way, nobody in the Border Patrol believes it’s a good situation for the kids. These facilities, the Border Patrol facilities at the Border Patrol stations and the HHS facilities are all at a breaking point. They’re busting at the seams. Is that a crisis? I don’t know, you decide. 

“This influx comes, by the way, during a season when you normally don’t have a lot of people coming over the border. This is in the winter — normally in the spring and then in the fall you see the biggest influxes of families, kids, individuals. So we expect these numbers to get a lot worse. We expect it to get a lot worse into the spring. By the way, we spoke to the Customs and Border Patrol folks today. They told us the numbers are up again today. In fact, we have some internal documents from the Department of Homeland Security that a media organization reported on, an official document that says DHS themselves predict there will be 117,000 children who will be placed in this situation this year. So they know that this is growing, and again, is it a crisis? You decide. It’s certainly a dangerous situation. 

“By all accounts, many of these migrants, including children, face serious threats to their lives and well-being on the trip north. Just as has happened in the past surges in 2014 and in 2019, we know this includes many victims of human trafficking who are deceived and coerced by traffickers and smugglers as they are taken from Central America up to the US border.   

“The trip is treacherous. We have evidence that exploitation and sexual abuse occurs along the way.  In 2019, again, the last time this happened, estimates of migrants who were victims of sexual or physical abuse along the journey ranged from 30-75 percent, and individual victims have described incredibly disturbing accounts of being subjected to violence, sexual assault, and rape by traffickers and other criminals.  

“So, it’s a bad situation. And by the way, this situation is a direct result of policy changes. The new administration came in determined to dismantle all of what the previous administration had done to try and disincentivize people from coming to the border. And they have been effective in doing that. They have dismantled the immigration practices and proceedings that were working to reduce these incentives, and that had resulted in very few kids coming to the border, as an example. Almost none. 

“Last week the Secretary of Homeland Security said at a press conference that the surge of unaccompanied kids is ‘a challenge, but not a crisis’. He then deflected blame to the previous administration. That’s fine. Look, I wish it were just a challenge that didn’t require an urgent response, but that’s not the reality along the border today. I frankly don’t care what we call it. Call it a difficult situation, a challenge, whatever you want, but I care a lot what we do in response. There’s an old saying that says: ‘Washington only responds to a crisis.’ I think, unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth to that. We have to respond here. We have to do something. That’s why I think we need to consider this dire situation a crisis before it gets much worse. 

“This next chart shows the reality, which is this surge happened almost immediately after President Biden and his new administration were sworn in and they made these announcements about changes in policy. Here we have the election, here we have the swearing in. Look at this huge surge in both family units and in these kids. As I said, we have twice as many kids today as we did ten days ago. This is surging up. Nearly 10,000 unaccompanied children and twice as many family members crossed our border in February, and that’s the shortest month of the year. These surges stopped under the previous administration because they put in place policies that reduced the incentives for individuals, families and unaccompanied minors to try to unlawfully enter the United States.   

“In less than two months, the Biden administration has systematically taken away these tools that were being used to reduce these incentives. On Day One, the new administration revoked the emergency declaration for the border, stopped construction of the border fence, and placed a 100-day halt to deportations. Not surprisingly, this gave traffickers the green light to exploit the situation, and more people and more drugs are now moving across the border. 

“Next, the new administration reversed what is known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or the Remain in Mexico policy, which required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico rather than being released in communities around the United States while waiting for their asylum claims to be adjudicated. 

“About 20 percent of the asylum seekers who went through the entire application process – including all of the hearings — were granted asylum in 2018. So if you go through all the process, about 20 percent of those individuals actually got asylum. Now, that’s a self-selected group because not everybody goes to their hearings. In fact, the best data shows that most don’t show up for all the hearings. The long-term data shows that about half of all asylum applicants eventually get removal orders due to them not attending all their asylum hearings. So we don’t have great data on this, to be honest, and some people say that very few of these people go to their asylum hearings, some say more do. The point is, about half of them are getting removal orders — we know that — for not attending all of their asylum hearings. 

“Given that there is a 1.2 million-case backlog in America today for asylum applicants and there were only less than 5,000 non-criminals deported last year by ICE, that tells us that under the current system, if you are a non-criminal asylum seeker who is denied asylum and is subject to one of these removal orders, it is highly unlikely that you’re going to actually end up being deported from the United States. Asylum seekers know that. So do the traffickers. It’s no wonder there was a surge of those who want to live in the United States coming to the border and seeking asylum in recent years. 

“I went to the border in 2019. Many of my colleagues have been down to the border to see this situation. I’ll be going back again soon to see firsthand what is happening and see how we can help. This should not be a partisan issue. This should be one where Republicans and Democrats alike see what’s happening, see the tragedy unfolding along the border and do something to address it.

“The Migrant Protection Program put in place by the Trump Administration had resulted in a sharp reduction in the surge of asylum claims, as people realized they weren’t going to be released into U.S. communities pending their asylum hearings. Now we’re seeing the reverse happen. 

“Second, the Biden administration actually suspended Safe Third Country Agreements with the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which allowed migrants to apply in the first foreign country they crossed into for asylum. This, of course, reduced incentives for migrants from those countries to make the long, arduous, and dangerous journey to the southern border. These agreements were in the process of being fully implemented, but they were already helping and had the potential to find a much more expeditious way to identify and process those who qualify for legitimate asylum or refugee status before they come all the way to our border. All that work that has been accomplished is now lost. I urge the administration to reinstate those Safe Third Country agreements with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. 

“Third, the new administration has also significantly changed the way we process migrants during the COVID-19 crisis. Instead of establishing the practice of turning away most immigrants and non-immigrant visa holders to protect the health and safety of the American people, we are now learning from media reports, including the Washington Post, that this new administration has made an unofficial exception to the COVID-19 rules for children and for families. Border Patrol Agents and CBP officers on the front lines are telling us that they are returning to the pre-COVID practice of bringing people into the country, despite the health crisis that all of us understand. 

“Reports are that either CBP are not testing kids and families for COVID at all, or if they are, they are still releasing some of those who test positive to shelters or into the United States, with a request that they quarantine, after they travel to their final destination in the interior of the United States. In fact, we know of one instance where more than 100 unlawful immigrants in Brownsville, Texas, who tested positive for COVID-19 were simply told to quarantine when they reached their final destinations, regardless of how many people they interacted with taking the bus — which, in that case, most were taking the bus apparently, or taking a plane, to their destination. Obviously that doesn’t make any sense. 

“The final policy change that encourages illegal entry is the new administration advocating amnesty for those here illegally without making it clear that such an amnesty would not apply to anyone not already there. That’s important. As the experience of the last amnesty in 1986 demonstrates, unless it is very clear that illegal entry won’t be rewarded, it will spawn more illegal entries. Now, let’s face it. The traffickers and the smugglers are going to take advantage of this and they’re going to misrepresent the reality. But still, it’s important that all of us as policymakers make it very clear, as we’re talking about amnesty, that is not as to people who might come in the future, that’s as to people who are already here. 

“I will say that the State Department has announced that it will be reinstating the Central American Minor Program which is a streamlined refugee process that existed under the Obama administration, run by the US government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees but was discontinued under the Trump administration. I think that’s a positive thing that they’re reinstating that. We don’t have all the details yet, but I will tell you that standing up this program without incentivizing people to use it, is not going to be very effective, and, even if it was as effective as it was at the height of the Obama administration, it’s not nearly enough people. 

“In two years, the program resettled 3,300 individuals. So 3,300 children were resettled in two years. That’s not going to make a real impact when we are receiving, right now, 3,300 children every couple of weeks at the border. But again, I hope they do reinstate that program. I think that would be positive. But they’ve got to do much more in order to avoid this tragic situation from continuing and getting much worse. 

“The decision by the new administration to change all these policies that were working without viable alternatives is causing this chaos. It was done without thinking through the real safety and security concerns for both communities and citizens of the United States as well as these unaccompanied kids and their families.  As a result, we have a surge of people who are being incentivized to enter our country unlawfully and our systems are being strained during a public health emergency. 

“And this influx is even worse than 2019, not just because the numbers are greater, but because we now have the COVID-19 pandemic. And children and families are being forced into tight quarters in detention facilities, asylum seekers with COVID-19 are being released into our communities and Customs and Border Protection officers, who haven’t been able to receive the vaccine yet, which is a problem, are being exposed to this influx of migrants who haven’t been tested. So it’s even a bigger problem, forgetting the numbers, given the situation we’re in. 

“And that ties to another concern I have about the way this crisis has been handled so far, which is the administration’s response to the overcrowding at the shelter facilities. It’s been to rush and potentially cut corners to place these unaccompanied children with sponsors, because their goal, after HHS detention at the HHS facilities, is to get these children out to sponsored families. The standards of due diligence required to ensure these children are not being placed in danger are not being met, as far as we can tell, continuing a troubling trend that goes back years and administrations. 

“This is an issue I have worked on since 2015, when we had a terrible situation in my home state of Ohio where kids were given back to the traffickers by HHS. The traffickers who had brought them up from Central America by lying to their parents about what they were going to do, taking them into school and so on. These kids ended up working on an egg farm, six, seven days a week, below minimum wage. So, I’ve seen this. I’ve seen what happens when HHS does not take its time and do it right. And it’s very difficult to do that with the surge that they’ve got. 

“Over the course of three bipartisan reports and hearings as part of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that I chaired, across two different administrations we found failures to ensure the safety of—or even keep track of—these vulnerable children once they were handed off to sponsors, as well as a fundamental refusal by agencies to accept that they were responsible for the welfare of these kids. That’s the reality. Our bipartisan investigations also found the Office of Refugee Resettlement failed to exercise appropriate oversight at their facilities and wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on organizations, on contractors, that could not acquire state licenses to safely open the planned shelter facilities. 

“So as this administration attempts to process this influx of unaccompanied kids and safely get them to longer-term housing solutions, it is urgent that they do due diligence on who’s going to be looking after these children. Not cutting corners as some reports have indicated. That means fingerprinting the sponsors. That means background checks. That means home visits. Because the federal government cannot allow these kids to fall victim to human trafficking, to abuse, or other harm.  

“I, along with my bipartisan co-sponsors, will be reintroducing the Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act again in the coming days to help ensure these requirements to protect our kids are met. 

“Here’s the reality: once these children arrive at the border, there are no good options. The answer is to stop providing the incentives – the pull factor. That’s the short-term imperative. We should not be encouraging these young people to make that arduous journey and then ending them up in a detention facility that’s wrong for them — a place where single males are crowded together, but where kids are not taken care of, and then when they’ve got to go to the HHS facility, there’s not enough room. 

“Again, making the point, 3,400 kids in detention. 2,800 kids are ready to be transferred to HHS to a more appropriate facility. There’s only 500 beds. 2,300 are kept in these overcrowded facilities meant for single males. So, it’s not a good option. There is no good option. The option is to keep them from coming up to the border in the first place. 

“Yes, we can do more on the push factors also. That means investing in Central America and other places to try to make those countries places where people would want to stay, rather than come to the United States. My colleagues, that’s what’s called a long-term solution. Let’s be frank. I’m for it, but we have got to recognize that’s not a solution to the current crisis that we face. 

“In the last five years we’ve spent $3.6 billion of U.S. taxpayer funds in aid for these Northern Triangle, for Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. President Biden is proposing to spend another $4 billion in those countries. I support smart investments that don’t get wasted because of corruption or other challenges, but it won’t fix the crisis this month, this year, or next year. The development of the Northern Triangle is a decades-long effort, one we need to do, but one that’s not going to address, again, the crisis that we face now.   

“I urge the Biden administration to also step up efforts to tie any aid to a better collaboration with our international partners – including the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – to address this challenge, discourage migration, and provide alternatives for those seeking to make the dangerous journey north. They need to help us and they have in the past. 

“Under the Trump administration we had a valuable partner in Mexico, as an example – they used tens of thousands of their own military to patrol their own southern border to ensure migrants could be processed, if necessary, and turned away if they didn’t meet the requirements. That was very helpful. I’m concerned that these troops have now been pulled back. That’s the information that we’re receiving. Partly because, as we’re told, President Biden is not encouraging the current Mexican leadership to continue this practice. I hope that changes. The current surge in unaccompanied children at our border in the midst of a global pandemic is a situation where no one wins and the children lose the most. 

“I’m disappointed that the Biden administration chose to overturn policies put in place by the Trump administration to help control the flow of migrants during this pandemic without any viable alternatives. And I am concerned that leaders at key agencies involved in the response to this crisis are somehow seeing it in their interest to downplay the severity of the situation. 

“I urge the Biden administration to change course, put back in place smart policies that reduce the pull factors, and address the need for legal and orderly processes for migration.”