I have always appreciated Senator Grassley’s comprehensive responses to letters sent to his office.
April 12, 2019Senator Chuck Grassley
Dear Mr. Kisling:
Thank you for taking the time to contact me. As your senator, it is important that I hear from you.
I appreciate hearing your thoughts regarding the enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws.
Our country has seen a dramatic increase in border crossings from family units, unaccompanied minors, and other unauthorized individuals in the last year. According to U.S. Border Patrol Chief of Operations Brian Hastings, the number of family units and unaccompanied children crossing the border illegally from Central America are arriving “in greater numbers and larger groups than ever before, straining our law enforcement resources.” According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) statistics, family unit apprehensions are up 290 percent, totaling 99,901, in Fiscal Year (FY) 2019, compared to the same period in FY18. Drug seizures are also increasing between ports of entry. In FY18, CBP Agents intercepted 388 pounds of fentanyl – enough to kill 88 million Americans. Fentanyl, heroin, and methamphetamine seizures have also all substantially increased between FY18 and FY19. This has resulted in the need for more stringent application of our laws, which includes detention, to protect the integrity of our immigration system, in addition to ensuring the safety of all Americans.
Further, according to a report issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), it arrested 138,117 aliens with criminal histories, which means they are convicted criminals and have pending criminal charges, which is an increase of 10,125 from Fiscal Year 2017 to Fiscal Year 2018. You can access the full report here: https://www.ice.gov/doclib/about/offices/ero/pdf/eroFY2018Report.pdf.
In response to the exceedingly large numbers of migrants seeking refuge in our country, on October 24, 2018, I sent a letter to the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Kirstjen Nielsen and Secretary of the Department of State Mike Pompeo, urging the Trump administration to adopt a safe third country agreement with Mexico – a similar existing agreement between the United States and Canada. Safe third country agreements require migrants seeking asylum to make their claim in the first country of arrival rather than passing through to another country. Such an agreement would serve American interests by helping to prevent expanded asylum claim backlogs and promoting national security by further disrupting migration of Special Interest Aliens, whom the Obama administration noted are seeking entry into the United States. If you would like to read my letter, please visit: https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/2018-10-23%20CEG,%20Lee%20to%20DHS,%20State%20-%20Migrant%20Caravan.pdf.
I also adamantly disagreed with separating families who illegally entered the United States at our southern border. I immediately began working with my colleagues to draft and pass legislation that would ensure children are not separated from their parents.
In April of last year, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered prosecutors along the border to adopt “a zero-tolerance policy” for illegal border crossings. That included prosecuting parents traveling with their children as well as people attempting to request asylum, but who were not entering through ports of entry. On June 20, 2018, after a great deal of bipartisan encouragement, President Trump signed an executive order that halted the policy of separating families. On June 25, 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan confirmed that the agency was no longer referring for criminal prosecution all families caught crossing the border.
On June 27, 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw halted most family separations at the border and ordered the reunification of all families that had been separated. The court order specifically required federal officials to: stop detaining parents apart from their minor-aged children; reunify all parents with their minor-aged children who are under the age of 5 within 14 days; and reunify all parents with their minor-aged children 5 and older within 30 days. The order mandated that officials provide parents contact with their children by phone within 10 days, if the parent is not already in contact with their children. This order did not stop the administration from prosecuting people who cross the border illegally.
While I applaud President Trump’s executive order, legislation provides a more permanent and long term solution. That is why, last Congress, I cosponsored Senator Tillis’ legislation, the Keep Families Together and Enforce the Law Act, which would keep families together while safeguarding the integrity of our nation’s immigration laws. This legislation would require that children and their parents remain together during their legal proceedings. It includes provisions to ensure the humane and fair treatment of migrant children and families by setting mandatory standards of care for family residential centers. In addition to keeping children and their parents together, this legislation would require children to be removed from an individual who presents a danger to the health and safety of the child, including situations in which DHS cannot verify an individual is the parent of the child.
The Keep Families Together and Enforce the Law Act preserves and codifies the humanitarian provisions in the 1997 Flores Agreement. In 1997, as a result of years of litigation, the federal government entered into a settlement agreement known as Flores v. Reno. When the U.S. government first entered into the Flores consent decree it was a much-needed step towards ensuring the humane and dignified treatment of unaccompanied alien children—children often thousands of miles from their parents.
The agreement provided that illegal immigrant children without their parents could only be kept in federal custody for a maximum period of twenty days. It also required the government to treat these children humanely and ensure the type of quality care we would expect any child—illegal or otherwise—to receive. However, in 2015, a single federal district court in California dramatically expanded the scope of the Flores consent decree by applying it to illegal immigrant children who arrive with their families, a move even the Obama administration opposed. This new judicially imposed requirement of the Flores agreement resulted in the family separations we now decry.
The Keep Families Together and Enforce the Law Act is a practical, straight-forward solution to a problem we all agree needs fixing. It reflects the American people’s humanity by securing the dignified treatment of minors and it respects the rule of law by permanently ensuring that families can stay together while their cases are pending
On July 31, 2018, as then-Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I held a bipartisan hearing titled, “Oversight of Immigration Enforcement and Family Reunification Efforts.” This hearing provided senators and the American people an opportunity to hear from the administration and to discuss options to ensure this never happens again. During this hearing, we learned that 431 children, the largest number of the 711 who were not reunited, were ineligible for reunification because their parents had already been deported. The administration claims that all of these parents elected to be deported without their children, but public reports indicate that many of them may have not made an informed choice to leave their children behind. Some of these reports suggest these parents were not presented this information in a language they could even understand.
Members of the Committee also questioned the witnesses at the hearing regarding the multiple news reports describing how illegal immigrant children and, in the case of family units, their mothers, have suffered unimaginable physical, mental, emotional abuse while in federal custody. These situations are unacceptable, and the American people expect better.
As a consistent advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, I was troubled by additional news reports about sexual abuse of immigrant children and mothers in federal custody. That’s why Senator Feinstein and I sent a bipartisan letter to the Inspector Generals of the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services (HHS) last year calling upon them to open an investigation into these allegations. We also asked the Inspector Generals to look into the practices, procedures, and policies that are in place regarding the custody of illegal immigrant families and children, in addition to making recommendations to both us and to the agencies regarding potential improvements to those practices. We have since followed up in our February 28 letter by again requesting the HHS Inspector General open an investigation into widespread allegations of physical and sexual abuse against children at HHS facilities because we have not received the findings of the investigation. Recent public reports allege that many cases of sexual assault in child care centers are not fully investigated by HHS, and that is intolerable and inexcusable. We must act to stop these assaults and bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.
Further, as you may know, on September 6, 2018, Secretaries Nielsen and Azar of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, respectively, announced a new joint proposed rule that would adopt the necessary portions of the Flores agreement. The proposed rule codifies the relevant and substantive terms of Flores as it pertains to the care and housing of detained migrant families. It would ensure that all alien minors and unaccompanied alien children are treated with dignity, respect, and special concern for their particular vulnerability as minors. It ensures that no families are separated by holding families together in licensed facilities or facilities that meet family residential standards, as evaluated by a third-party entity. The rule would also eliminate catch-and-release by ensuring that families are kept together safely and humanely until the disposition of their asylum proceedings. Further, the rule would formalize the way HHS accepts and cares for children, while implementing related provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) that DHS and HHS are already following.
I have long had concerns about loopholes in the Flores agreement that create a “catch and release” system. This has acted as a pull factor that incentivizes illegal immigration and encourages smugglers and other criminals who profit from our failed policies. We need a policy that protects the humanitarian goals of Flores, but also fixes the 20-day loophole related to detention. I’ve sent a number of letters to Secretary Nielsen highlighting case after case of illegal immigrants who have committed crimes in the country because they were released at the arbitrary 20-day mark.
My staff will continue to monitor the proposed rule by DHS and HHS and any subsequent changes, and I will continue my role as a leader in Congressional oversight. I’m encouraged to see that the rule would codify portions of Flores that ensures humane conditions for detained families, with a specific focus on the treatment of minors and children. Americans deserve a strong immigration enforcement apparatus, but they also demand that their government abide by basic humanitarian standards. That’s why I’m encouraged that this rule will ensure that third-party entities may evaluate the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s family residential standards. This adds a layer of oversight and should address any concerns about how these families are housed and treated.
Rest assured, while I continue working on solutions to fix our immigration system, I will keep your thoughts in mind.
Again, I appreciate hearing your thoughts, and I encourage you to keep in touch.
United States Senate