Portman: We Must Ensure Vulnerable Unaccompanied Children Are Not Further Endangered by the Policy Choices Being Made in Washington, DC

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, delivered an opening statement at a hearing with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, to examine the steps that DHS is taking to address the crisis of unaccompanied children at the southern border. Senator Portman highlighted that the Border Patrol agents are overwhelmed by the increasing number of children that are coming to the southern border, putting these vulnerable children at risk of human trafficking and abuse. 

Yesterday, Ranking Member Portman issued a statement after U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released operational statistics that showed that the United States is experiencing the worst migrant crisis in more than two decades. According to CBP’s operational statistics, not only were there more than 178,000 total encounters at the border in April, but April 2021 had more than 17,000 encounters of unaccompanied children at the southern border, the second-highest monthly total since Border Patrol began counting unaccompanied children, the highest being just last month in March 2021. Portman recently traveled to the southern border in El Paso, Texas, with Secretary Mayorkas, where he witnessed firsthand the ongoing migrant and unaccompanied children crisis, including situations where children were held in close quarters and unable to adhere to CDC distancing guidelines. 

Senator Portman has made it clear that the Biden administration’s border crisis of unaccompanied children and surging migrant numbers 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 opening statement can be found below and a video can be found here.

“Thank you, Chairman Peters.  I appreciate your moving ahead with this hearing and it’s critical that we have it. And appreciate the bipartisan oversight of the critical issues we’ll talk about today.      

“More than 50,000 unaccompanied children have come to our border during the 113 days since the first day of the Biden administration when they immediately began to put in place new policies. Typically these kids are brought by unscrupulous traffickers and too often abused along the way.  This chart behind me shows what has happened. It uses Customs and Border Protection data to show that the crisis today is unprecedented and far worse than it was last year and even substantially worse than 2019 when everyone considered it a crisis. Here’s 2019, here’s the inauguration, here’s where we are today. 

“Because the focus today is on unaccompanied children, these numbers today do not even include families, which are also coming in large numbers, fifty times higher than last year at this time. Or single adults where there is a twenty-year high as predicted by the Secretary. 20 year high in crossings. Or, of course, the drug trafficking, which is a huge concern. We know that seizures of deadly fentanyl, as an example, are at a record high. We don’t know how many of these deadly drugs are getting through, but it’s most of them. 

“Last month, over 108,000 single adults were apprehended at the border, up from over 96,000 in March. And again, seven times greater than last April. On top of that, the Border Patrol conservatively estimates that over 40,000 people who crossed illegally ‘got away’ and were not apprehended in April. We have no idea who these individuals are. 

“Our federal agencies in the border are, of course, overwhelmed. My hope is that today we can quickly get past the debate and agree on the nature of this unprecedented surge so we can turn to solutions to stop this surge and ensure that vulnerable children are not further endangered by the policy choices being made here in Washington, DC.            

“Mr. Secretary, it has been two months since you, Chairman Peters, and the ranking and chairs of the DHS Subcommittee on Appropriations and I traveled to El Paso to see this crisis at the border firsthand.  I appreciated your support of our trip and I have appreciated our conversations since. What I learned on our fact-finding trip was that the Border Patrol is overwhelmed and short-staffed because of the overwhelming pressure at the border from not only from unaccompanied minors arriving, but also significant adult and family arrivals we have discussed. I am proud of the Border Patrol agents and welcome the progress made in getting out of the situation we’re in where so many children were crowded into CBP facilities. They have now gone into other government shelters run by HHS so more frontline agents in the Border Patrol can now go back to their critical law enforcement duties along the border. Border Patrol agents are doing the best they can in a very difficult situation and we must support them, including providing additional resources. 

“I learned that pressure on the Border Patrol of managing the influx of migrants – particularly processing children and families as they are detained– has taken them away from border enforcement activities. Human traffickers and drug smugglers know that.  They are using unaccompanied children and families to divert Border Patrol agents so that they can cross the border with other illegal entries and illicit and deadly narcotics such as fentanyl that are killing Ohioans and others across our country with record levels of drug overdoses and hurting families across the country. 

“I learned that the surge of children puts those children at risk of abuse and trafficking even once they are in the United States. Remember, these children are only held until sponsors can be found in the interior of the United States. Then, as we have learned, regardless of the asylum adjudication that might occur, hardly any of these children will ever be returned to their home country. In fact, those that came in the last surge in 2019, I’m told are almost all still here in the United States. 

“We have all heard the horrifying stories of the trauma some children experience on their way north. We’ve heard of sexual assault and other abuses including, unfortunately, at HHS facilities. Now hundreds of federal employees with no formal experience or training in child care are being brought in from other jobs around the country to help care for these children. I appreciate those volunteers, but I’m also concerned they don’t have the training and experience to be able to properly care for them. HHS is repeating the same mistakes of the two previous administrations as they deal with this crisis. With the overwhelming number of children, HHS has released children quickly without proper background checks of sponsors or other adults in the same household. We know that in some cases in the past, children have even been sent back to their traffickers and HHS has lost contact with these kids.  

“I am glad that Customs and Border Protection has moved children to HHS, again, but these children have only been moved from one federal agency to another—and now HHS is in crisis.  Moving from one unsafe, overcrowded facility to another is not a measurement of success.  Neither is releasing them to sponsors who have not been properly vetted. We’ve seen this before. While Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, we issued three bipartisan investigative reports and held three hearings over two administrations on this very issue. We found that HHS failed to conduct background checks, and as a result, released children to human traffickers, including some who were placed into forced labor at an egg farm in my home state of Ohio.  A major issue left unresolved is that unaccompanied children remain at risk because no federal agency claims legal responsibility or authority to ensure they are not being trafficked or abused once placed with a sponsor. There’s no accountability. 

“These are all downstream problems that exist because of the surges and the incentives that encourage parents to send their children with human smugglers to enter our country unlawfully. The current policy is essentially that any child from anywhere, other than Mexico, who shows up at our southern border is allowed to come into the United States for an indefinite period of time. As long as that is true, in my view, the surge will continue. 

“I support more help for the Central American countries, the so-called Northern Triangle countries – where most of these unaccompanied children are coming from, but no one who looks at this problem seriously can believe that any amount of aid to Central America will change the pull to come here in the short term.  Properly targeted U.S. foreign assistance and engagement in the region can help to change conditions over time, but the crisis at the border is now. 

“There are three actions the administration must do and two actions that Congress can do. One is to support the Border Patrol with more agents, more technology, and certainly the completion of the parts of the border wall that are already paid for. My hope is that we’ve made some progress on this issue just in the last 24 hours. Second, we must provide incentives for children to apply for asylum from their home country, not to come to the border. And we must reinstate the safe third country agreement so that they can apply there. And third, we should require immediate asylum adjudication at the Border for children, and families, and adults. We’ve got to require some resources, but it’s well worth it. 

“We should not be releasing children to sponsors in the interior of the United States pending a decision, we should be making a decision at the border. We should also pass our bipartisan bill, the Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act to require better background checks and to ensure accountability to be sure HHS keeps track of these children who have already come in. 

“We also need to pass my legislation to mandate E-Verify to reduce the jobs magnet which is behind all of this. The sad reality is that some of these children are exploited and abused including being forced to work in violation of labor laws in order to pay off their smugglers. That this is happening right now here in this country is unacceptable. 

“Mr. Secretary, again, I appreciate you being here today and look forward to discussing all these issues in more depth with you. Thank you.”