Legislative Update: 7/1/2014
House Committees Seek Answers on Surge of Illegal Alien Minors
The debate in Congress over the surge of illegal alien minors into the U.S. continued last week with two hearings in the House of Representatives. On Tuesday, the House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing entitled, “Dangerous Passage: The Growing Problem of Unaccompanied Children Crossing the Border” with Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson as the main witness. On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee held a more politically charged hearing entitled, “An Administration-Made Disaster: The South Texas Border Surge of Unaccompanied Minors” with a panel primarily of law enforcement officials.
During the Homeland Security hearing, Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) said the Obama Administration’s lax enforcement policies, and not Central American violence, is responsible for the surge. “The tragic fact is these children are making a dangerous journey based on misinformation and the false promise of amnesty,” McCaul charged. (McCaul opening remarks, June 24, 2014) McCaul said the rough conditions in Central America “are not new,” adding that it is “beyond dispute” that the failure to enforce immigration laws “shapes behavior and encourages people to come to our country illegally.” (Id.) McCaul called on the President to send the National Guard down to the Texas-Mexico border to address the crisis. (BGov Transcript, June 24, 2014)
Several Committee Republicans accused the Administration of being aware of the problem since at least January but doing nothing to prevent the surge. Specifically, the Members cited an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bid placed on January 29 seeking federal contractors to help transport unaccompanied alien minors. (BGov Transcript, June 24, 2014; see also “Escort Services for Unaccompanied Alien Children”, Jan. 29, 2014) Remarkably, the ad indicates that there will be approximately 65,000 unaccompanied alien minors needing transport this year which matches the estimate Obama Administration officials gave earlier this month. (“Escort Services for Unaccompanied Alien Children”; see also FAIR Legislative Update, June 4, 2014) With this newly acquired information, McCaul said it is clear DHS has turned a “blind eye to the warning signs,” adding that “few concrete actions have been taken.” (BGov Transcript, June 24, 2014)
Likewise, true immigration reformer Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) pressed Secretary Johnson on why DHS did nothing in advance to stop the flood of unaccompanied alien minors overwhelming our borders. (Id.) In response, Secretary Johnson defended the Administration’s approach to immigration enforcement and continued pointing to Central American violence as the source of the problem. Johnson said he is looking at every “conceivable, lawful option” to deal with the “urgent situation” along the Southern border and rattled off a number of steps the Administration is taking to address the surge in unaccompanied minors. (Id.; see Johnson written testimony, June 24, 2014) While repeatedly blaming violence and smugglers, Johnson went further, claiming that from his “own conversations” with the unaccompanied minors, the “principle reason they are leaving their countries is the conditions in those countries.” (BGov Transcript, June 24, 2014) Yet, published interviews from the unaccompanied minors tell a different story. For example, a 14 year old Guatemalan told the Associated Press, “The United States is giving us a great opportunity because now, with this new law, we don’t have to try to cross the desert where so many people die. We can hand ourselves over directly to the authorities.” (Associated Press, June 25, 2014)
The following day, House Judiciary Republicans continued to attack the Obama Administration’s non-enforcement policies as the cause for the surge. Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) charged, “President Obama’s refusal to enforce our immigration laws has resulted in a crisis of his own making along our southern border.” (Goodlatte opening remarks, June 25, 2014) “Word has spread around the world about the Obama Administration’s lax immigration enforcement policies and it has encouraged thousands of children, teenagers, and families from Central America to come to the United States illegally,” Goodlatte said. (Id.) Shortly after the hearing, Goodlatte announced he is no longer working on the KIDS Act, legislation he was working on with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) that would grant amnesty to minors. (The Hill, June 26, 2014; see also FAIR Legislative Update, July 15, 2013)
Similarly, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) criticized the Obama Administration’s exploitation of asylum to allow many of these illegal alien minors to remain in the country. Chaffetz argued that Obama’s plan of sending more immigration judges and attorneys to the border will only ensure expedited processing of asylum claims. (BGov Transcript, June 25, 2014) Chaffetz revealed that the committee has obtained internal DHS documents showing that approval of asylum claims has increase 586 percent since 2007. (Id.) “Many of the children, teenagers, and adults arriving at the border are able to game the system – our asylum and immigration laws – because the Obama Administration has severely weakened them,” Chaffetz said. (Id.) “Word has gotten out that there is a virtual rubber-stamping of applications” for asylum. (Id.)
On the other hand, Committee Democrats defended the Obama Administration, citing Central American violence as the reason for the surge rather than the President’s immigration policies. Ranking Member John Conyers (D-MI) said that the people fleeing El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are not just heading to the U.S., but also Panama, which has had an increase in asylum applications. (Id.) Likewise, Immigration Subcommittee Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) called it a “regional catastrophe” because there has not been a similar surge of minors to the U.S. from Nicaragua, which is a poorer country. (Id.)
However, the testimony of the law enforcement officials from the front lines refuted the claims made by Secretary Johnson and Judiciary Democrats. When asked what the minors are telling agents, Brandon Judd, president, American Federation of Government Employees National Border Patrol Council, unequivocally said they tell his agents there are “coming because they can stay.” (Id.) Likewise, Chris Crane, president of the National ICE Council, said the minors are telling his officers “promises of amnesty” are causing the surge. Indeed, even Ronald Vitiello, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, acknowledged that the promise of amnesty was one of four factors (along with violence, poverty, and corruption) that is responsible for the surge, though he was unable to say how the violence has become significantly worse over the past few years. (Id.)
Additionally, the agents testified that they are getting insufficient assistance from the Administration to handle the surge. Chris Crane said the crisis is placing a “tremendous strain” on “limited manpower and resources nationwide,” adding that ICE is removing officers from fugitive operations teams, the Criminal Alien Program, Secure Communities, and other interior enforcement programs to handle the border crisis. (Id.) When asked about insufficient detention beds, Crane said there is “no way that we can do our jobs… if we don’t have bed space to hold people that we apprehend in, period.” (Id.) Likewise, Brandon Judd said 40 percent of Border Patrol manpower is now “processing and caring for those in our custody.” (Id.) Judd added, “This decrease has stressed our workforce to the breaking point and makes it nearly impossible to effectively patrol the border and fight against organized crime.”
Yesterday, President Obama asked Congress to approve $2 billion in emergency funds to increase border security, add immigration judges, and deterrence. (See Washington Post, June 28, 2014)
Stay tuned to FAIR as details emerge…
Congressional Working Group to Address Border Crisis
Last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) appointed Deputy Whip Kay Granger (R-TX) to lead a working group comprised of six other House Republicans to address the flood of unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States. (Boehner press release, June 24, 2014) Boehner formed the working group to advise and keep lawmakers informed on the Southern border crisis. (Id.)
Boehner created the working group upon the recommendation of Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA). (See Wolf press release, June 24, 2014) As Wolf recommended, Boehner appointed Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX), Appropriations Committee Homeland Security Subcommittee Chair John Carter (R-TX), and Granger to the group. (Boehner press release, June 24, 2014). In addition, the Speaker added three more Representatives: Matt Salmon (R-AZ), Steve Pearce (R-NM), and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL). (Boehner press release, June 24, 2014) Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere Chair Salmon, Judiciary Committee Chair Goodlatte, and Homeland Security Committee Chair McCaul all held hearings on the border crisis last week. (See Foreign Affairs Committee website, June 25, 2014; House Judiciary Committee website, June 25, 2014; Homeland Security Committee website, June 24, 2014)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) criticized the all-Republican composition of the working group, calling for Boehner to include fellow Democrats, particularly those in the Border Caucus. (Roll Call, June 26, 2014) However, three of the working group members — Representatives Carter, Diaz-Balart, and Pearce — have worked with Democrats on immigration. Congressmen Carter and Diaz-Balart both were members of the ‘House Gang of Eight’ for amnesty, and even after Carter left in September 2013, Diaz-Balart continued to meet with Democrats as the sole Republican in the group. Pearce introduced a bipartisan immigration bill with Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) which would amend current law to allow the Secretary of Homeland Security and immigration judges to halt the removal of aliens based on hardship to the alien. (H.R. 3431; see also Pearce press release, Oct. 31, 2013). In fact, some Democrats were optimistic that Republicans in the group will work across the aisle. Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-TX) approached Granger and McCaul to offer his assistance to the working group. (Roll Call, June 26, 2014) “There are friends there I can work with in a bipartisan way,” he said. (Id.)
Border Crisis Will Increase Backlog of Juvenile Immigration Cases
At Wednesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing, a senior Administration official admitted that the influx of unaccompanied alien minors crossing illegally into the United States would add to a significant backlog of cases in immigration courts.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director for Enforcement and Removal Operations Tom Homan testified that 87 percent of cases with unaccompanied alien minors that the government filed from 2009 to 2014 are still pending. (See Bloomberg Government Hearing Transcript, June 26, 2014; see also House Judiciary Committee website, June 25, 2014) Homan added that the time from the date the government files a Notice to Appear in court to the actual scheduled date of that appearance for a hearing can be up to five years. (See Bloomberg Government Hearing Transcript, June 26, 2014; see also House Judiciary Committee website)
In addition to the sheer number of cases, Homan cited the lack of sufficient immigration judges as a reason for the backlog. (See Bloomberg Government Hearing Transcript, June 26, 2014; see also House Judiciary Committee website) Two years ago, a government report cited another reason for delays in immigration cases: the proceedings are often prolonged by the use of frequent continuances, mostly at the request of the alien. (See IG Report, Oct. 2012 at p. 39)
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, which conducts immigration court proceedings, reported that 350,330 adult and juvenile cases were still pending at the end of fiscal year 2013. (FY 2013 EOIR Statistical Yearbook, Apr. 2014 at p.W1) According to researchers at Syracuse University, as of March of fiscal year 2014, U.S. immigration courts had a backlog of 360,000 cases. (See Associated Press, Jun. 25, 2014; see also Syracuse TRAC Pending Cases Data, Mar. 2014) In fact, the backlog of cases in U.S. immigration courts has been chronic. The Department of Justice Inspector General reported a backlog from 2006 to 2010, when the number of new immigration proceedings consistently outpaced the number of completions. (See IG Report, Oct. 2012 at p. 23; FAIR Legislative Update, Nov. 5, 2012)
Whether the minors who are currently crossing the border seek asylum, special immigrant status, U-1 visas, or T-1 visas, their new cases will be added to already heavy dockets. Three years ago, only 35 special immigrant juvenile petitions were pending, but by 2014, they had multiplied to 702. (See USCIS Special Immigrant Juvenile Petitions Statistics, Mar. 19, 2014) Similarly, while 198 pending asylum cases of minors were on the dockets on September 30, 2011, the number increased to 611 cases on March 31, 2014. (See USCIS Minor Asylum Statistics, Apr. 2014; USCIS Minor Asylum Statistics, Oct. 2011) The number of pending U-1 visa petitions has tripled from 21,138 in 2009 to 58,496 in 2013. (See U-1 Visa Statistics, Mar. 2014) U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) reported 212 pending T-1 visa cases as of October 22, 2008. (See USCIS Ombudsman letter at footnote 2), but the number of completed cases did not keep pace with the increase in number of T-1 visa requests, which jumped from 293 applications in 2007 to 1,368 in 2013. (See T-1 Visa Statistics, Oct. 2013)
The backlog has a significant impact. When immigration courts do not promptly resolve cases, aliens with illegitimate claims for relief from removal may continue to stay in the United States. (See IG Report, Oct. 2012 at p. 29) Furthermore, the administration of justice is negatively impacted, because evidence can be lost or witnesses may become unavailable as time passes. (Id.)
As Border Crisis Intensifies, Senate Appropriations Committee Cuts Detention Beds
While illegal alien minors stream across the southern border, the Senate Appropriations Committee last week cut detention beds for immigration violators as part of the FY 2015 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appropriations bill. (Senate Appropriations Press Release, Jun. 26, 2014) The bill was approved by voice vote by the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee last Tuesday, and by the full Committee on Thursday. (CQ Roll Call, Jun. 25, 2014; Senate Appropriations Press Release, Jun. 24, 2014; CQ Roll Call, Jun. 26, 2014) The Senate bill reduces the minimum number of detention beds ICE must maintain from 34,000 to 31,039. (See FAIR Legislative Update, Jan. 22, 2014; S. 2534 at p. 11). This reduction is similar to the cut in detention beds President Obama requested in March, even though the Department knew it was short of detention space. (FAIR Legislative Update, Mar. 12, 2014)
While the Senate bill cut detention beds in the FY 2015 DHS appropriations bills, it is anticipated that a small number of those will be returned to the bill by the time it reaches the Senate floor. In the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee last Tuesday, Ranking Member of the Subcommittee Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) said that the Subcommittee had “been able” to add “an additional thousand detention beds, [to the White House’s requested 30,539] as well as funds to operate a second family detention center,” so that more families could be detained without being separated. (See audio clip at 29:15-29:30) As 500 of these thousand “additional” beds, are accounted for in the Senate’s bill already, the family detention center will most likely include approximately 500 beds. The government currently operates a single detention center in Pennsylvania, with space for only 100 people. (ABC News, Jun. 20, 2014; LA Times, Jun. 20, 2014) Even after the 500 detention beds are added, the administration will be struggling to find detention space, as 52,000 unaccompanied minors and 39,000 adults with children have been caught crossing the border already in this fiscal year. (Id.)
Overall, the Senate’s FY2015 DHS appropriations bill cuts DHS’ discretionary funding by $300 million from fiscal year 2014, to $39 billion. (See FAIR Legislative Update, Jan. 22, 2014; Senate Appropriations Press Release, Jun. 26, 2014; S. 2534). About a third of this cut to the department’s budget comes from cutting the budget for salary and expenses of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by $92 million, that is, from $5.229 billion, to $5.137 billion. (H.R. 3547 at p. 246; S. 2534 at p. 10) About $60 million of this $92 million decrease to ICE is accounted for by money set aside for detention and removal operations (detention beds), as the $2.785 billion set aside for such purposes in last year’s bill is only $2.725 billion in this year’s Senate bill. (H.R. 3547 at p. 247; S. 2534 at p. 12; Senate Appropriations Press Release, Jun. 26, 2014)
Meanwhile, as the Administration is scrambling to find new detention space, the Senate DHS FY 2015 appropriations bill increases funding for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) by $480 million over FY 2014. Remarkably, however, the increase does not go toward increasing the number of Border Patrol agents, or even Customs and Border Protection officials, to handle the crisis at the border. (S. 2534; FAIR Legislative Update, Jan. 22, 2014) Instead, the bill adds 1,000 Custom and Border Patrol officers to handle the processing of tourists and trade at air and sea ports. (Senate Appropriations Press Release, Jun. 26, 2014). Notably, the bill does provide $77 million for Customs and Border Protection to provide initial processing, medical care, feeding, shelter and clothing for the estimated 145,000 unaccompanied immigrant children DHS expects to encounter in fiscal year 2015. (Id.) But this does not address the large security gap created by the reassignment of Border Patrol and ICE agents to manage and care for the illegal alien minors.
Nevertheless, the Senate Appropriations Committee was pleased with its work, with Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) saying to the Committee about its work on appropriations “feel proud of yourselves,” and Committee member Mary Landrieu (D-LA) calling the cuts to the Department’s budget “quite a feat.” (seeaudio clip at 23:10, 28:30)
In contrast to the Senate FY 2015 DHS appropriations bill, the House has increased funding for immigration enforcement in its FY 2015 appropriations bills. (FAIR Legislative Update, Jun. 4, 2014; House Appropriations Committee Press Release, Jun. 11, 2014) Just a couple of weeks ago, the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee passed legislation that would increase “salaries and expenses” for the agency to $5.449 billion from $5.229 billion in fiscal year 2014. (SeeId.; see also House Appropriations Committee Draft of 2015 DHS bill at p. 10; H.R. 3547 at p. 246) It also maintained detention space at 34,000 beds, rejecting the President’s to cut them by several thousand. (FAIR Legislative Update, Jun. 4, 2014; House Appropriations Committee Draft of 2015 DHS bill at p. 12)
As the DHS appropriations bills have both been passed by the full Appropriations Committee of the House and Senate, the next stop for each bill will be the floor of each chamber. At that point, if these funding differences remain, they will have to be reconciled before becoming law.
Massachusetts Committee Defeats Illegal Alien Driver’s License Bill
Legislation that would make illegal aliens eligible to receive driver’s licenses and learner’s permits in Massachusetts failed this session because of its lack of support among constituents and within the Massachusetts legislature. Last week, the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Transportation voted to send House Bill (“H.B.”) 3285 to study, effectively killing consideration of the legislation this session. (Boston Globe, Jun. 24, 2014)
H.B. 3285 would have removed the provision in Massachusetts law that requires an applicant to provide a Social Security Number for proof of identity in order to receive a driver’s license or learner’s permit. (H.B. 3285) The bill would have also prohibited the registrar of the Department of Motor Vehicles from denying a driver’s license or learner’s permit to any person who fails to provide evidence of immigration status. (Id.)
Massachusetts Representative Marc Lombardo, who represents the 22nd Middlesex District, opposed H.B. 3285 because he believes the legislation would create a “magnet” by encouraging illegal aliens to move to Massachusetts, and serve as a shield against the enforcement of federal law. (MassLive, Mar. 11, 2014) “To give identification to those who are illegally here allows our ID to essentially mean nothing. It becomes a form of ID that allows those that are illegally here to hide in society with those who are legally here,” said Representative Lombardo. (Id.)
Massachusetts Senator Richard Moore, who represents the Worcester and Norfolk District, also opposed H.B. 3285. “I don’t think it will make the roads any safer,” Senator Moore said. “The individuals who are here violated the law to be here and remain here and I don’t see how granting them licenses guarantees they’ll obey traffic laws any better than they do immigration laws.” (Telegram, Mar. 16, 2014) Senator Moore further noted, “Illegal immigration needs to addressed — not changing our laws at the state level to make someone who is here illegally, entitled to a privilege. Driving is a privilege.” (Id.)
Legislators were not the only true immigration reformers to speak out against the bill. H.B. 3285 faced strong opposition during its hearing in March in the Joint Committee on Transportation by community leaders. Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson was among those who testified against H.B. 3285. He said the proposal would reward people who violated federal immigration laws and warned that granting licenses would not mean safer roads. (Boston Globe, Mar. 6, 2014) “We are a country of laws,” Hodgson told the committee. (Id.) “If we begin to tell people that we’ll make exceptions for any group, then we have to honestly ask ourselves, do the laws really matter?” (Id.)
Massachusetts Senator Patricia Jehlen, a sponsor of H.B. 3285, advocated on behalf of the measure, arguing that immigration status should not be a bar to getting a driver’s license or learner’s permit. (WWLP, Jun. 23, 2014) “I’d rather everybody or more people on the roads who are driving have taken the test and having insurance.” (Id.) However, there is little evidence to suggest illegal aliens who fail the driving test will not drive, since many claim to drive unlicensed already. Similarly, data from New Mexico, who has issued driver’s licenses to illegal aliens since 2003, suggests that granting driver’s licenses to illegal aliens would in fact increase the rate of uninsured drivers, not reduce it. New Mexico is now home to the nation’s second highest percentage of uninsured drivers. (Insurance Research Council, 2011)
The defeat of H.B. 3285 marks a victory for true immigration reform. So far in 2014, eleven states have considered legislation that would enable illegal aliens to obtain driver’s licenses and identification cards, and none have passed.