On Senate Floor, Portman Highlights Need to Reform Asylum Process That Acts as Pull Factor for Unlawful Immigration

WASHINGTON, DC – Last night on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, highlighted the need for the Biden administration to reform the asylum process that acts as a pull factor to bring unlawful migrants to the southern border and into the United States. Portman once again urged the Biden administration to take action on the ongoing migrant and drug crisis at the southern border. In addition to the unprecedented number of individuals, children, and families attempting to enter the country unlawfully, illicit narcotics, like fentanyl, are also coming across the border and into the United States, resulting in a record number of overdose deaths in Ohio and throughout the country.  

Portman voiced his frustration over the reported plans by the Department of Homeland Security to bring more buses, planes, and personnel to the border to process unlawful migrants into the country more quickly when coronavirus-related policies at the border end. This policy change will only increase the worst migration crisis in our nation’s history.   

Last year, Portman visited the southern border in Nogales, Arizona where he witnessed firsthand the ongoing crisis and spoke to Border Patrol agents about the need for more and better technology to adequately scan all incoming passenger and commercial vehicles for drugs and other contraband. Portman has visited the southern border several times in the past year, and each time Border Patrol agents have highlighted the challenges they face with increased and more sophisticated efforts to smuggle illegal migrants and deadly drugs into the United States. 

Earlier this month, Portman issued a statement after U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released operational statistics for February 2022 that show a seven percent increase in border arrests compared to January, and a 60 percent increase from February 2021.  

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

“I’m on the floor today to talk about border security, an issue that is intertwined with our national security and certainly with the drug epidemic we see in our communities around the country. We are in the middle, right now, of the worst border crisis in the history of our country. This chart tells the story. Monthly border crossings are at an unprecedented level. Customs and Border Protection reports that there were 164,973 encounters at the border in February. By the way, that’s equal to the population of Dayton, Ohio. Actually, it’s far greater than the population of Dayton, Ohio. 

“So we’ve never had this kind of illegal migration going on in our country, this many people being apprehended. They told us last week that they are seeing over 7,000 migrants per day in this month, in March. And this is while something called Title 42 is in effect. What’s Title 42? Well, despite these really big numbers you see here in terms of the number of people being apprehended at the border, under what’s called Title 42, which is a public health authority, nothing to do with immigration, really. It’s about public health and it’s in place because of COVID-19. It allows the Customs and Border Protection folks to actually tell people, sorry, you can’t come in the United States for public health reasons and therefore they can be turned away. So that order is in place right now. 

“Here’s how that has worked. If you look at this chart, you’ll see the people who have been turned away because of Title 42 in orange, the numbers in orange, and then those who have been allowed to come into the country in blue. You’ll see here at the end of the last administration in the Trump years, when we had for the most part a secure border, we had very few illegal entries. We had about 75 percent of the people who were coming in were turned away by Title 42. In this administration, it’s closer to about 50 percent. About 50 percent of people are being turned away by Title 42. Now, why is this important? 

“Well, obviously, we’re making progress on COVID. COVID-19, we all hope is not going to be here forever. There may be another variant out there, but as we are relaxing mask mandates and telling people that they don’t have a vaccination mandate anymore to be able to come to work or travel across our borders, we are hearing reports that the Biden administration may rescind Title 42. So get rid of this authority within the next several weeks. And you know what? Unless we have a new variant, God forbid, that comes in and causes a big new health crisis, they’re probably right. 

“Title 42 probably shouldn’t be used in this way because it is a public health authority, not an immigration law. The problem is that if that happens, remember, we already have an unprecedented number of people coming into the country. Look at this chart. If that happens, then all these folks who are being turned away, the orange bars here, are going to be coming across the border also without Title 42 in place to have them be turned away. This is why the Border Patrol tells me, I know the presiding officer hears the same thing all the time, they are already overwhelmed, but they say it will be out of control. Now, some would argue it’s already out of control, but it’s going to get a whole lot worse. So they’re worried on the border and rightly so that the current crisis is going to become far worse. 

“My two colleagues from Arizona, both Democrats, have my understanding, just asked President Biden to keep Title 42 in place. And I think that makes sense to keep it in place for now because we’re just not ready for a huge increase in migrants coming across the border. We can’t handle the current wave. The information we’ve received from the Department of Homeland Security is that they are planning for a massive increase in migrants when this happens. I’m the Ranking Republican, the top Republican on the Department of Homeland Security oversight Committee called the HSGAC Committee, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and we’re talking to the Department of Homeland Security, and they are preparing for a huge increase. But their plan seems to be more about more buses, more planes, and more tents to help expedite the flow of these migrants into the country. Rather than figuring out a way that our immigration system should work better to be able to say to people, come legally, please don’t come illegally, which is what these numbers represent. By the way, I’m for legal immigration. I think it has enriched our country. I think it’s an important part of the fabric of our nation. It makes us special. 

“We’ve brought people in from all over the world, including pretty much all of our parents and grandparents, certainly great grandparents. Anybody who is in this chamber, unless you’re Native American, you came here, your family came here as immigrants. But legal immigration, while it should be encouraged, is not the same thing as what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about illegal entries, people that don’t qualify under the legal system. And in all these countries where people are coming from, others are waiting in line patiently under the legal immigration system. So America typically is the most generous country in the world, year after year, in accepting legal immigrants. Sometimes that changes based on the refugee flows. And we’re seeing the refugee flows today in Poland as an example. 

“Poland is going to be the most generous country in the world thanks to the brutal and murderous and cowardly attacks by Vladimir Putin on that country. But America is a generous country in terms of immigrants, and we should be. But with regard to legal immigration, we’re not just a country of immigrants that has enriched us. We’re also a country of laws, right? So we have to have some laws in place to deal with this illegal immigration. Of course, it’s not just about people coming illegally. It’s about all the other contraband that comes across the border, particularly the illegal drugs. So I believe we have to keep Title 42 in place for now. But I also agree this is not a long-term solution to the crisis we have at the Southern border. To use a healthcare authority to effectively take care of about half of the illegal immigration coming across the border doesn’t make sense. By the way, when you see the difference here in the use of Title 42, it’s because, during the Trump years, they use Title 42 for families and for single adults coming over. Whereas here, the Biden administration chose not to apply to families. For the most part, the vast majority of families do not get stopped because of Title 42. It’s just single adults, which is the vast majority of people coming across the border illegally. So that’s the difference in terms of the percentage of use of Title 42. 

“So we got a real problem on our hands. It’s already overwhelming, and it’s about to get a lot worse. What’s the solution? Well, the solution is to fix our immigration laws. So the foundation underneath all this and the problem that has resulted in these numbers is because our immigration law doesn’t work. It’s broken. And everybody acknowledges that. I don’t know a member in this Chamber who wouldn’t acknowledge, at least privately that our immigration system is broken. How can you look at these numbers and not realize that? And yet we haven’t been able to find a bipartisan way forward. 

“It’s very frustrating. What we have to do is we have to look at the underlying laws and why they don’t work. Well, there is one reason, and it’s by far the biggest reason may not be the only one, you could argue we should put more Border Patrol, I think we should do that, we should have more fencing, we should do that, but the biggest problem is our asylum policy in this country. The administration has implemented the asylum policy in a way that makes getting control of the border impossible. 

“Now what is asylum? Well, it’s something to help people who really need relief, and it should be used for that. People who have a credible fear of persecution. So back in their home country, they’re being persecuted, they come to America, they apply for asylum. We have a tradition here in America of accepting those people as we accept refugees. It’s basically the same standard. But the problem is that people are coming into our country, claiming asylum, going through a long system, we’ll talk about in a minute, not qualifying for asylum and yet staying in our country. And this has caused a huge pull factor where people from all over the world are coming to America because they’re told gosh, all you have to do is apply for asylum. They’ll let you in, and it’s unlikely that you’ll ever have to leave. 

“That’s how the system works now. I mean, that’s just the honest truth. And I think if you talk to anybody who’s objective about this, they will admit it. Now, some people think we should not have the asylum policy act as their immigration policy. These people should just be allowed to come in. And there are some people who believe that. My belief is we ought to stick with the legal immigration system, again, the most generous in the world in most years and say for asylum, let’s limit it to people who actually qualify for asylum. Let’s not let people misuse the system to gain entry into the United States. And by the way, the people who are misusing it are the smugglers, because it’s the smugglers who go to the family, let’s say a country like Ecuador or Guatemala, and they say, give me a bunch of money, like $10,000, which is a lot of money for a poor family in one of these countries. And I’ll get your kids or you and your kids in the United States and get them in school, get you a job, because America has this crazy asylum policy where you can just do that. And we’ll talk about how that works in a second. But that’s a pull factor. 

“I recently went to Latin America, met with the presidents of Mexico and Guatemala and Ecuador and Colombia. They all said the same thing, which is, please change your policies because it’s a pull factor. You’re taking some of our best and brightest people, and they all want to come to the American border and go across because they know this is how they can get into your country. You have a legal immigration system where people stay here and apply and go through the process. That’s fine, but change your asylum policy. Now, that might surprise some people. 

“Some people might think, well, the presidents in those countries might like when people leave and send money back to their family. But no, they don’t want to lose all these people. And that’s what’s happening. Look at these numbers. That’s what’s happening. By the way. It’s not just people who are from Central America and Mexico. So here’s an interesting chart that I asked my team to put together. These are encounters at the Southwest border. So when somebody is stopped, apprehended by the Border Patrol, from people who are not from either Mexico or the Northern Triangle. So look how this has increased. 

“Back in 2018, very few people were coming across the border illegally who weren’t from Mexico or Central America, the so-called Northern Triangle countries. Look what happens here. You have a huge increase in people coming over the border who are from other countries. So I was told today that there are people coming over the border this year from 150 countries. You’ve probably heard the stories of people from Ukraine, a country that is under siege by Russia. And you can’t blame people for leaving that country. And I’ve been to Poland on the border recently. I’ve seen the refugees there. But some of these refugees are actually coming to Mexico and then finding their way to the Southern border and then coming across the Southern border from Ukraine, also from Russia. And the Border Patrol has confirmed that for me. 

“So this is ticked up as this conflict continues. Why? Because they know the easiest way to get into America is to walk across the Southern border and you claim asylum and you get in. Now, we’ve just decided to bring 100,000 refugees in from Ukraine because of this crisis. So maybe that will be a way that more people can come. They don’t have to come through the Southern border, but now they know this is the easy way to come in and look at these numbers. So it’s not just people, again, from Mexico and Central America now. It’s people from all over the world. And for some of these people, the Border Patrol is nervous because they come from countries where there are a lot of people who want to do us harm. 

“So people are coming in from countries in the Middle East as an example. They’re concerned and for good reason. So what happens when you come to the border and you claim asylum? So after you tell the Border Patrol that you would like to claim asylum, you then are permitted to come into the country, assuming you meet a basic standard where you say the right things about having a credible fear of persecution and you get in line for an asylum determination. So you come to Washington, DC, or my hometown of Cincinnati or Tucson, Arizona, wherever it is, and your wait is between four and six years. Others say it’s four to eight years because of the appeals process, but let’s say four to six years. So an average of five years that you are in the United States waiting for your asylum request to be adjudicated. What happens during that time period? Well, you’re able to work, your kids are able to go to school. You get embedded in the community, as you might imagine. Some people will show up for the court case, some people don’t. And they’re in the community and probably feel like it’s unlikely they’ll be deported. 

‘So it’s not a system that works well to have that kind of a lag time. By the way, there are 1.5 million people in this category, 1.5 million people in this backlog. Does this make any sense? Here’s what’s most unusual about this process, I’ll say. At the end of the process, when the asylum adjudication is made, you know what happens. Most people are told, I’m sorry, you don’t qualify. In fact, the latest information that we have from the Department of Homeland Security is that immigration judges granted asylum to roughly 2,400 migrants in FY 2021. And these, again, all originated with a credible fear claim, a claim of credible fear of persecution in their home country, 2,400. That is just 14 percent of such cases completed. 

“So that would mean, in terms of these cases, these numbers we have here, that roughly 85 percent, 86 percent of the people who applied, went through the process, were not granted asylum. Now, I’ve heard different numbers here, but I’ve never heard somebody tell me a number that’s close to 50 percent. So the majority of people who go through this whole process, wait four to six years, finally have their court case heard. Majority of people, again, in FY 2021, it would appear, with 2,400 in removal, that would be just 14 percent of such cases completed. The vast majority don’t meet our standard. 

“So who are these people? They’re economic refugees. Who can blame them for wanting to come to the United States of America? If I lived in one of these countries and I wanted to look out for my kids and my family, as we all do, I might do the same thing. So I don’t agree with people who say all these folks are coming over here to use our welfare and to commit crimes. Some of them do. We know that, both of those things. But I think the vast majority of them come here and I’ve talked to a lot of them, as has the presiding officer, if you go to the border, you meet these people. These are families who are poor and who are looking for a better life, a higher salary, better healthcare, a future for their kids. But they’re not coming legally. 

“And that’s the issue. And economic refugees don’t qualify as asylees. They don’t meet the standard to come in under the asylum process. They have to come in under the legal immigration system. So, look, it’s a complicated issue, but in some respects, it’s really very simple, isn’t it? We have a process here in our country now where if you show up to the border and you claim asylum, you get in. And there’s a very good chance that although you will not have your claim adjudicated favorably, that you’ll end up being able to just stay in the United States. There is discussion about how many people are actually deported once they are put into removal. In other words, if they are told they don’t meet the standards put into removal, are they deported? 

“Well, the priority of the Department of Homeland Security, and again, we’re the oversight Committee for this, is people who have a criminal record and people who are terrorists, pose some threat to the country. And that means for the vast majority of people, they’re not going to be prioritized in terms of removal. There’s also an opportunity to appeal. And that’s why some people say it’s not four to six years, it’s four to eight years. But let’s say even four years, that’s a long time to wait. 1.5 million people. Now, I’m told that the administration is coming up with a new rule to help deal with this issue. And I was initially very encouraged when I heard about this because what I’ve been asking for for some time is a system where we adjudicate these cases at the border as soon as people come across, yes or no, let people know. 

“If it’s no, go back home and apply legally. If it’s yes, come on in the United States, you then are a legal immigrant. Eventually, you qualify for a green card. Eventually, you qualify for citizenship because you’re an asylee, like a refugee. But let’s do that adjudication at the border when people come, by the way, that’s what the law says. It says people should be detained until they are adjudicated, but it’s not what we do. So I have been pushing for Congress to actually fund this effort. It’s going to be expensive. Places where people can be humanely detained during a short period of time before an immigration official who can determine, yes, you’re in or no, you don’t qualify, rather than waiting years and years, as we do now and again, 1.5 million people who are in limbo who are in the United States. 

“I was sort of excited when I heard that the administration was coming up with a new rule for quicker decisions. I think that makes sense. However, I’m learning more about this proposed rule. It appears to be another asylum appeal on top of an already backlogged asylum system. And this is why I say that. It adds an asylum officer to the process who is on the border. And when the person comes forward and says, I have a credible fear of persecution, I want to claim asylum. This individual, who is not a judge but is an asylum officer and trained, is able to either approve or deny the case. The problem is if you approve the person, the person comes in again, eventually gets a green card, becomes a legal immigrant. But if the person is denied, apparently the individual then goes into the regular process, can immediately appeal to an immigration judge. So it just adds another layer that can be appealed. 

‘So I’m concerned about that. Now, I’m told that there will be an effort to speed up the immigration judge decision under this process. So if there is an officer at the border who makes the initial determination and the initial determination is no, then the judge would have to act more quickly than the four to six years currently in place. So that would be an improvement. That would be an improvement if it could be faster. But I’m not sure how that’s going to happen because the reason there is four to six years is there’s a 1.5 million backlog. My view would be as people are coming in, they ought to be adjudicated quickly, yes or no. If it’s yes, come on in. If it’s no, go back home. 

“That would send a message to the next group that is being told by these smugglers we talked about, just pay me this money and I’ll get you into America. Your kids can go to school, you can go to work. I fear that unless we fix the system, it’s going to give those human smugglers even more opportunities to encourage unlawful migration. By the way, this comes at a time when DHS recently reported to Congress that several million migrants in the Western hemisphere are getting ready to start their journey to the United States. Why? Because they know Title 42 we talked about earlier, is going to disappear, in the orange here. 

“So it’s a time when apparently there are more people thinking about coming. We know we’ve seen the caravans and so on. That’s not something that we want to go through again. It’s a pull factor. As I said earlier, it’s pulling people to the border. It’s giving the coyotes, the traffickers, the smugglers, the ability to make lots of money and to bring people, again, not just from Mexico and Central America, but from all over the world. By the way, the journey north is a dangerous one, and I know everybody’s heard about that and seen that. You saw recently that there was a trailer tractor full of migrants that crashed and dozens of people were killed. We know about the sexual assaults, women, girls, boys. We know about the human trafficking that occurs in connection with this. We know about the cartels who are involved with this smuggling and how much they charge people. 

“By the way, just last year, there were 10,000 requests for Border Patrol help from people who were in distress because they were left in the desert to their own devices, and they needed water, where they needed food, they needed to be rescued. Over 10,000 cases where the Border Patrol went and rescued migrants who were left by these smugglers in the middle of the desert. So this is not a system that we should hold up as a good system. This is a system that is broken and corrupt. And the people making money, again, are the cartels. 

“The drug cartels, by the way, are very involved in this. So it’s about people, but it’s also about drugs, and we all know this. They know when the Border Patrol agents are being taken offline to process people coming into the country, which leaves wide open gaps for them to transport drugs into America. I saw it when I was down there last year, and I was down more recently also. But what I saw was we were out at night and a group of migrants was coming, and the Border Patrol was going to that location to stop them and question them. And meanwhile, the drug smugglers came across, and we all heard it on the radio. You could see it, but what could they do? They were distracted. 

“Fentanyl is the deadliest of the drugs. This is the synthetic opioid that is killing more people than any other drug. About two-thirds of the people who die of overdoses in my home state of Ohio and probably in your state are dying from fentanyl or a variant of fentanyl. It used to come from China through the mail for the most part. We did a pretty good job of stopping that, including legislation called the STOP Act I was proud to be part of. But it’s like whack-a-mole. You stop it here and it starts somewhere else. And now it’s coming in from Mexico. A lot of the analogs, a lot of the precursors are coming from China still into Mexico. It’s then being made into either a pill or some other substance that comes in the United States. 

“So I do a lot of work in this area in terms of the prevention and the treatment and the longer-term recovery. And I think that’s really the most important part to stop the demand. But I got to tell you, it’s really hard right now for people who are interested in helping on the treatment side or law enforcement back home, because this stuff is flooding across the border and it means that the supply has gone up and it means it’s so cheap. Law enforcement in Ohio tell me that it’s cheaper than marijuana on the street, fentanyl, and it’s being pressed into pills that say things like Xanax or Percocet. And unfortunately, people are taking those pills not knowing it has fentanyl. And some are dying of overdoses immediately. 

“Last year in Ohio, we had, unfortunately, a record level of overdose deaths again. In America, the same was true. 100,000 people died of overdoses from these drugs. And again, probably 60 percent, two-thirds in Ohio were dying of fentanyl. Last year, we had a 40 percent increase in fentanyl coming over the Southern border based on apprehensions. And by the way, Border Patrol will tell you when you go and talk to them, they’re not stopping a lot of it because they don’t have the ability, they don’t have the resources. But it is a true crisis, four times as much as in 2019. According to CDC, fentanyl and these other synthetic opioids again are the biggest danger. 

“A few months ago, I was in Nogales, south of Tucson, near where the presiding officer lives, and I was there to ride with the Border Patrol and go to the port of entry and meet with the Border Patrol and customs officials. They’re doing an awesome job with what they have. 24/7 job to try to protect our nation from these narcotics and these bad actors who come from around the world now and try to enter through this vulnerable Southern border. And just to deal with the migrant flow we talked about, it was pretty alarming. They need better equipment. They need help. They need more resources. They need better technology to be able to scan cars and trucks coming in, particularly for the drugs we talked about. 

“Fentanyl, by the way, a relatively small package can kill thousands of people. So you can hide this stuff in a car or a truck much more easily. Some of the ports of entry have more technology than others, but here’s the average. Less than two percent of the passenger vehicles and less than 20 percent of the commercial vehicles coming into the United States are scanned for illegal drugs like fentanyl. Those are the numbers. It’s unacceptable. A smuggler with multiple pounds of fentanyl concealed in a hidden compartment, who is going to make hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars on that has a very good chance of getting across the border without a search. 

“It’s not a gap in our security, it’s a gaping hole. And it helps lead to this flood of cheap fentanyl and other dangerous drugs. Last year, Customs and Border Protection seized nearly 10,000 pounds of deadly fentanyl, again a 40 percent increase from 2020. We also, of course, face challenges between the ports of entry. In Nogales, the border agent in charge I rode with showed me huge gaps in the fencing and described an overwhelming record-breaking number of unlawful migrants and drugs coming into the United States and the urgent need, as he told me, for more agents, more trucks, more technology, including cameras and sensors. These gaps and broken areas of fencing that need repairs. It’s just inexcusable. We should fix it. 

“By the way, the smugglers know where these gaps are. The human smugglers know well. The gap I saw, there were all kinds of bottles and old backpacks and stuff and where people had discarded things as they come across the border. And you could see the trails, you could see the tracks where people had come across because they know where the breaks are in the fencing. So this is a system that is broken and the difference between what was happening here at the end of the last administration and this system is there were changes in policy that were put in place right away. 

“One widely reported one was the one to stop the installation of the fencing on day one via executive order. By the way, fencing alone is not enough. You have to have technology that goes with it. But unfortunately, they stopped the technology too. And I was in El Paso probably a year and a half ago and they showed me the gaps in the wall and maybe 80 percent of the fencing was done and then 20 percent was openings where, unfortunately, 24/7 the border patrol had to be there or else people would just come across. 

“So it wasn’t slowing anybody down. But I focused on the technology because you want the sensors and the cameras and all that. The fence itself is not as effective. In fact, not very effective at all if it doesn’t have the technology. They said 90 percent of the technology had yet to be installed because of that decision on day one, the executive order, because it stopped all the technology too and I know my colleagues on the other side of the aisle and I talk about this a lot, they’re for the technology because they understand this is an issue. 

“Somehow, I don’t know, this issue just is one where there’s a disconnect between the clearly broken system and what we’re able to get together and do on a bipartisan basis. Since the President’s inauguration, the Southern border has faced the worst unlawful migration crisis we’ve had. The men and women of the Customs and Border Protection I’ve met over the years are doing the best they can. We need to help them more. They’ve got really difficult jobs right now. 

“For the Border Patrol, I’m working on bipartisan legislation to increase the number of agents, address retention challenges of the existing workforce – they are losing people – and let them respond faster to humanitarian crises including having a Border Patrol reserve they can call on, people who are qualified and ready to help. The ongoing crisis at our Southern border is clear and it’s persistent. It’s not seasonal anymore. You look at these numbers. 

“Again, we welcome legal immigrants. We always should. They enrich our country but we are both a nation of laws and immigrants. I urge the Biden administration to change course to fix this broken system, to fix and reform this asylum process that acts as a pull factor to America to stop these policies that send a green light to the human smugglers and the drug traffickers that leads to so much human suffering and a border that is not secure. I yield back my time.”