On Wednesday morning, the House of Representatives began public hearings into just the fourth impeachment inquiry on an American president in the nation’s history. On the Senate side, it was business as usual. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, opened a hearing with a wry smile: “I’m not sure why you’re not over on the House side,” he told the audience. The room was not full. “Must have been paid staff.”
When Johnson, back in July, gaveled in a hearing in this series, “Unprecedented Migration at the U.S. Southern Border,” the subject was a nationally galvanizing issue. The hearing room was full, cameras were rolling, and the session was briefly interrupted by protesters. For now, the nation has moved on, and Johnson seemed more relaxed.
In recent months, or possibly years, the Senate, under a stubborn Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been relegated mainly to confirming nominations for various government posts, approving appropriations bills, and quietly turning the judicial branch into a redoubt for the radical fringe of the legal world. At the beginning of Donald Trump’s administration, many vowed to keep close tabs on the workings of the government; fighting “normalization” was a refrain in 2017. But here we are.
The shift in attention allowed Johnson to put forward, without any pushback, a vision of the manufactured humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border as, instead, a bureaucratic nightmare being valiantly managed by the “compassionate” people at the Department of Homeland Security.
This particular session was meant to be a “year in review.” Four witnesses were on the panel, three of whom were Trump-appointed, unconfirmed immigration officials. There was a lot to ask about. On Tuesday, it was widely reported that the Supreme Court is setting up to repeal former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which gives certain eligible children, who arrived in the U.S. with their parents, temporary legal status. And the Associated Press reported that a record number of migrant children were detained by the U.S. in 2019.
The hearing, however, didn’t seem to have a point other than to exaggerate the need for growing an already whopping immigration enforcement budget. In 2018, according to a recent report by John Washington in The Nation, the total budget was $23.7 billion, up from $9.1 billion in 2003. In 2019, Customs and Border Protection was budgeted an additional $163.6 million simply to hire more Border Patrol agents.
To hear the witnesses speak at the hearing, undocumented migrants are, at best, an inconvenience to the U.S. immigration system. “CBP had to divert resources away from their mission critical duties to care for the children and families,” said CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan. “At times, up to 50 percent of Border Patrol resources were pulled off the line to care for families and children, leaving areas of the border increasingly vulnerable.” USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli testified that the time it takes DHS to process temporary protected status, or TPS, and DACA requests is time that should be spent adjudicating legal immigration requests instead. (Cuccinelli was named deputy to the new acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf on Wednesday.)
“We’re the most generous nation in the world, by far,” said Cuccinelli later in the hearing, referring to a country that is set to admit no more 18,000 refugees in 2020, the smallest number since the refugee program began following WWII. This year, the European Union has resettled twice that many refugees, missing its goal of 50,000. In October, for the first time in at least 30 years, the U.S. reportedly didn’t admit a single refugee. Johnson, the senator, blamed the historic low number of refugees accepted in the U.S. on the large number of asylum-seekers on the southern border (who Johnson terms “illegal”). “The illegal flow absolutely affects the legal flow, correct?” Johnson asks. Cuccinelli concurs: “We’re shifting resources to deal with that.”
The tactic from DHS officials seemed to be to drum up panic in order to ask for more funding. The current number of daily apprehensions, down significantly from earlier this year, stands at just under 1,400 per day. They mainly attributed the reduction to the so-called Migration Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” implemented earlier this year, that forces asylum seekers to wait on the Mexican side of the border during their immigration proceedings. (This does nothing to improve the humanitarian crisis, only displaces it.) But Morgan was quick not to let the numbers tell the story: “I’m concerned that the ‘good’ story I’m able to tell this morning regarding the migration crisis has allowed some people to take their eye off the ball,” he said. “But this crisis isn’t over.”
In their telling, the large number of migrants crossing the border is the result of legal loopholes to applying for asylum; Johnson repeatedly spat on “credible fear” as the standard by which asylum-seekers may remain in the U.S. without facing deportation to their home countries, calling it a weak hurdle. In the witnesses’ testimony, such humanitarian standards are “loopholes” that exist primarily for the benefit of drug cartels and criminals. “Make no mistake,” Morgan said. “If you have a methamphetamine in your town or city, it came from the southwest border.” When Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, pointed out that even “as the number of crossings goes down, the drug flow has not” (implying that reducing crossings has no effect on the drug flow), Benner still pointed to “Mexico” as the culprit.
Derek Benner, the acting deputy director of ICE, testified that 3,600 child predators had been arrested by ICE in the 2019 fiscal year, as had 1,800 human traffickers. “Almost every community in this country is now a border community,” he said. Benner praised the use of DNA testing by ICE, and said the agency had found over 600 children who crossed the border multiple times — a process officials call “recycling,” in which children are allegedly used by adults wanting to cross so that the adults can avoid being detained in the U.S. Morgan also said CBP had detected over 6,000 “fake family members.” One Honduran man, according to Morgan, had purchased a child to cross with. “They know if you grab a kid, that’s your passport into the United States,” Morgan said.
As a reporter, my ears pricked up as the numbers flew by unquestioned by Democrats, especially since DHS agencies are known to produce statistics based on fuzzy math. 3,600 “predators”: Where did this number come from? Were those so-called predators actually convicted as such? Who was this Honduran man? By what standard did they determine who is family and who is not? CBP responded to a request for clarification with two links, one from the conservative Washington Examiner reiterating earlier CBP numbers and one from the Epoch Times, a newspaper associated with the controversial Falun Gong movement. “In this story they mention a baby purchased for $80, this may have been what Commissioner Morgan was referring to,” a spokesperson wrote. ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Even the Democrats who did show up didn’t exactly push back on the hard-line narratives presented. Besides committee ranking member Sen. Gary Peters, Sen. Tom Carper, and a brief but silent appearance from Sen. Maggie Hassan, there were no Democrats present. Peters, during his allocated time to question the witnesses, asked about how much time CBP and ICE officers spend in training. But he was quick to reassure them that his questions were not intended as criticism: “I don’t see the need for training as a criticism in any way.” Carper used his time to chastise Morgan for having said Congress hadn’t done enough to pass legislation addressing the root problems and to emphasize how many times he had voted to increase CBP funding.
In one gratifying moment, Johnson pushed back against a DHS number. Morgan testified that 86 percent of people who were picked up in the interior of the U.S. this year had a criminal record, but failed to clarify whether that criminal record included crimes related to immigration. Johnson said it would be useful to know what the breakdown was for other types of crimes.
The officials’ unofficial request of the Senate committee was for “surge capacity” along the southern border — that is, a greater number of facilities in order to detain even more people and to examine these so-called false families before releasing them. “There’s no immigration system in the world designed to handle such a massive migration number, not even the United States,” Morgan said. The proposed solution? “We should have 5,000 beds,” said Benner, similar to what FEMA uses to address the aftermath of a natural disaster. This is the closest the hearing ever got to the truth, connecting the number of migrants to the natural disasters, even inadvertently — and to admit that no country, anywhere in the world, is prepared to deal with what’s coming.