ICE has already released 168,000 illegal immigrant family members into the U.S. this fiscal year, and the number is likely to surge as the border situation deteriorates, a top deportation official told Congress on Wednesday.
According to the results of a pilot program, a staggering 87% of released families are skipping their court hearings, leaving judges to order them deported in absentia — and the government is ill-equipped to track them down.
“Family units are not appearing in great numbers,” said Nathalie R. Asher, the acting chief of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s deportation branch.
She revealed the numbers to senators Wednesday during a high-stakes hearing in which she and other immigration officials pleaded with Congress for more money and more legal tools to try to stop the surge of illegal immigrants.
Nearly 110,000 were nabbed at the southwestern border in April, including nearly 100,000 caught by the Border Patrol trying to sneak into the U.S. The other 10,000 were encountered when they showed up at ports of entry demanding to be let in, despite lacking permission.
That total is the highest in more than a decade.
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Still more troubling is the number of illegal immigrants traveling as families, which neared 62,000 in April alone. That shattered the all-time monthly record and represented a doubling of the number from just three months earlier.
That surge is being fueled by lax U.S. policies, and particularly a court ruling in 2015 that illegal immigrant parents who travel with children must be released within 20 days. That is too little time to complete a court case, meaning the government has no choice but to set the families free on the vain hope that they return for deportation hearings.
“They have received the message loud and clear: Bring a child, you will be released,” said Carla Provost, chief of the Border Patrol.
A staggering 1% of the populations of Guatemala and Honduras have made the journey north to the U.S. and jumped the border in just the past seven months, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said this week.
If the trends continue, that number will be 2% by the end of this fiscal year in September.
Democrats doubted Chief Provost’s claim.
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Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said the problem is not U.S. legal protections for illegal immigrants but rather U.S. drug consumption, sales of weapons and the cash that flows into the Central American countries, fueling violence there.
He blamed President Trump for fueling the chaos, saying his upheaval at Homeland Security has left the department spinning, with four heads of the department so far.
He also said Mr. Trump’s threats to shut down the border are spurring more people to make the trip now.
“It’s cruel, it’s unpredictable and it’s ineffective,” Mr. Durbin said.
The senator also said there is “zero evidence” that the 2015 court ruling is a factor in the surge.
The experts told him that just wasn’t so.
Chief Provost said her agents interview the migrants they apprehend, and most say they are not fleeing violence but rather seeking jobs — and they know to bring children.
“From interviews that we have done with the families we are apprehending, they are hearing that message loud and clear. They are hearing that from the smugglers, they are hearing that from the media down in the Northern Triangle,” she said.
She said agents have caught 3,500 “fraudulent” families so far this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.
Those include groups in which an adult brings a niece, nephew, grandchild or other relative and poses as a parent; in which an adult brings a child who is 18 or older and claims to be a juvenile; and even cases in which unrelated children are kidnapped, borrowed or sold to help someone pose as a parent.
Chief Provost said her agency just encountered such a case.
“The child admitted to basically being sold by his father,” she testified.
Mr. Durbin downplayed family fraud, saying even with 3,500 cases it was only a few percentage points of the total number of families.
Chief Provost countered that those were only the ones they detected.
A recent intensive enforcement by ICE found three in 10 families were suspect, Ms. Asher testified.
“The fraud, the exploitation, is rampant, and it’s not stopping,” she said.
The witnesses asked Congress to change the 2015 court ruling so families can be detained, to alter a law to allow unaccompanied illegal immigrant children from Central America to be quickly deported, to add more beds to hold people awaiting deportation and to change the standards to cut down on asylum abuse.
Republican lawmakers have promised legislation dealing with those issues.
Mr. Durbin said Democrats will counter with their own bill next week that would siphon money to Central America for nation-building, allow for migrants to apply for asylum from outside the U.S., crack down on smuggling cartels and surge immigration judges to try to hear cases faster.
Ms. Asher, though, said more judges won’t work unless Congress also pumps money into ICE for more prosecutors. She said it takes three lawyers to handle enough cases for every immigration judge and that unless ICE has space and power to detain people, they are difficult to deport.