by Sharon Rondeau

(Jul. 31, 2018) — At approximately 10:38 a.m. EDT, following appropriate introductions, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley swore in several witnesses testifying in a hearing titled, “Oversight of Immigration Enforcement and Family Reunification Efforts.”

Live streaming of the public hearing is here:

The first to testify was Carla L. Provost, Acting Chief, U.S. Border Patrol, who said in her opening remarks that the separation of children and adults after crossing the border illegally is not new to the Trump administration.

Matthew Albence, Executive Associate Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations, a division of ICE, then gave his opening statement, which included statistics on illegals apprehended after crossing the border and processes involved in caring for “UACs,” or “unaccompanied alien children.”

Albence referenced what he indicated are erroneous news reports about his department’s activities.

The third witness, Commander Jonathan D. White, Ph.D., LCSW-C, CPH, whose title is Federal Health Coordinating Official for the 2018 UAC Reunification Effort for the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, said that all children cared for by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) receive three meals plus snacks each day, recreation, medical and dental services, and mental health services.  He said that many of the children brought over the border are “at high risk” of having been trafficked.

James R. McHenry III, Director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review at the Department of Justice said during his remarks that “criminal proceedings” do not preclude an alien from filing an asylum claim. On the matter of family separations, he said that the “Department of Justice recognizes the seriousness of the situation.”

The last witness, Jennifer Higgins, Associate Director for Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), explained that immigration law requires that anyone claiming asylum on the basis of “credible fear” to Border Patrol agents be referred to her office after initial screening.  She stressed, however, that an “immigration judge” is the final arbiter as to whether or not the individual will be permitted to remain in the U.S.

At 11:07 a.m., Grassley said that reports that children are held “behind bars” “seems to be at odds” with the witnesses’ testimony.  He then specifically mentioned a New York Times article claiming that “migrant women” have been sexually abused while in ICE custody.

In response to Grassley’s questioning, Albence said that in “many” instances, parents who have crossed the border with children “choose” to leave them in the U.S. if they themselves are deported.  He said that parents often pay between $5,000 and $10,000 to smuggle a child across the border and prefer not to “take the risk” of taking the child back with them to their home country.

At approximately 11:15, Judiciary Committee ranking member Dianne Feinstein voiced her concerns about the number of children — reportedly more than 300,000 — in the care of HHS presently.  “How did all of this happen?” she asked.

White responded that “80%” of children in HHS care were found unaccompanied by the Border Patrol.

In regard to the hypothetical of “a baby” who is unaccompanied, Feinstein asked where the “alien number” appears, to which White said, “It would not be on the baby; it would be in our electronic filing system.”

In response to Sen. Orrin Hatch’s questioning, Provost said that approximately “25%” of aliens crossing the border are family units.

At 11:46, when Sen. Richard Durbin began to speak, someone directly behind him held up a sign.  Durbin faulted HHS for allegedly failing to keep track of the parents of children maintained in HHS custody.  Durbin also asked if there is “documentation” showing that certain parents have “abandoned voluntarily” their children in U.S. custody, to which Albence answered, lengthily, in the affirmative by providing the form number.

In response to a question Sen. Lindsey Graham asked, Albence said that 1-2% of unaccompanied alien minors are returned to their home countries.

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