Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham asked acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan on Tuesday how many asylum seekers coming across the southern border show up for their hearings.
“It depends on demographic, the court, but we see too many cases where people are not showing up,” he said, telling Graham that DHS recently conducted a pilot program with family units. “Out of those 7,000 cases, 90 received final orders of removal in absentia, 90 percent,” he said.
McAleenan also told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Border Patrol is overwhelmed and underfunded due to the ongoing humanitarian crisis. The secretary described authorities as hamstrung by laws that limit how long they can keep migrants in custody.
“Currently due to a single district court order, we cannot obtain effective immigration enforcement results for the families arriving at our border -- they cannot be held for longer than 21 days and do not receive rulings from immigration courts for years,” he said.
He also said the restrictions on how long family units can be held means that children are “now seen as a passport to the US,” with only 30 percent of those coming to the border actually trying to avoid being captured. “Unless you’re a single adult, it is very unlikely you’ll be repatriated,” he added.
McAleenan urged Congress to act to end such loopholes and to grant the requested DHS funding. He suggested that a possible solution to the crisis is to make asylum seekers claim asylum in their home countries or designated third-countries, following the “Secure and Protect Act of 2019,” that was earlier presented by Graham and discussed during the hearings.
“First of all, it would break the back of the smuggling organizations, they’re profiting from this cycle.” McAleenan said. "It would provide access to asylum in country in a much safer manner than taking this dangerous journey and it would stop this flow immediately. I believe the vast majority [of the migrant flow] would stop.”
Democrats, meanwhile, suggested that the administration bears some of the blame for the situation at the border, with Sen. Dick Durbin pointing to McAleenan's recent appointment as an example of the department’s dysfunction.
“In less than two and a half years, there have already been four heads of this department, we have before us an acting secretary who has been on the job for more than two months," he said. "We cannot face this crisis effectively with a revolving door policy in the leadership at the Department of Homeland Security.”
The so-called 'migrant caravan' from Central America began making its way to the US through Mexico in the autumn of 2018. In February, Mr Trump declared a national emergency over the migrant situation in order to raise up to $8 billion in federal funds for the construction of his much-debated border wall.