Only about 3 or 4 percent of the unaccompanied minors who have entered the country in the last two-and-a-half years have been returned to their home countries, Sen. Jeff Sessions charged on Tuesday.
"It cannot be that every young person that appears from Central America is entitled to asylum or entry into the united states, contrary to our laws," Sessions said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday. "It just cannot be. Does anybody in this government not understand that?"
Immigration officials testified that the border crisis could be mitigated if more people were sent home. "I don't disagree with that," Thomas Homan, a senior official at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told Sessions. "I think if you have a consequence of deterrence to illegal activity, the illegal activity will slow down."
The Alabama Republican noted that 4,680 of the 127,000 minors who have arrived in the last two-and-a-half years have been returned. Senate Democrats argued that increasing the number of returns would be inhumane, although GOP lawmakers pointed to cases of unaccompanied children being released to criminals to argue that President Obama's policies are creating another kind of humanitarian crisis.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., criticized the Obama administration for carrying out raids to pick up 121 people who have been ordered to be deported. "We have a conundrum here: we want to make sure that we're not sending back people to their deaths," Franken said moments after Sessions spoke.
"I just think it's important to remind people that many of the children who come to this country as well as those who come here alone, who come with their mothers and other family members, are fleeing unimaginable life-threatening violence in their home countries. So what we're facing here is a humanitarian crisis, not just a matter of border security or immigration enforcement."
Franken's statement reflected the arguments made by a child advocacy group during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the border crisis last month.
"The act of coming to the U.S. and applying for asylum is not illegal under our immigration laws," Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, told lawmakers. "It is fundamentally unfair for any child to face removal proceedings without the assistance of counsel. Our staff has witnessed children as young as three years old appear in court without an attorney. This violates due process and contradicts the U.S. principle of due process and respect for the rule of law."
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, followed Franken by highlighting the failure of Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that the unaccompanied children were placed in safe environments. "Can you tell this committee under oath that none of the 127,000 unaccompanied children who have been placed with sponsors in the United States have been sexually abused, have been trafficked, or have been forced into coerced labor?" he asked.
"Senator, I could not make a statement like that," replied Mark Greenberg, the acting assistant secretary at HHS' administration for children and families. "What I can tell you is that we are committed to putting in place, and having in place, the protections and safeguards that are crucial for these children."
Cornyn and Sessions both argued that the federal policy of putting the Central American children into the legal system to have their refugee status adjudicated, rather than immediately returning them to their homes as the government does with Mexican children, is "attracting" minors into the country.
"It cannot be that every country that has a high crime rate, everybody can enter the country illegally. give me a break. Who is running this country?" Sessions said. "It's causing these children to take undue risk and it violates our law and its got to end."