Washington—Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) yesterday spoke on the Senate floor about the need to address the humanitarian crisis at the border by passing the supplemental appropriations bill.
Excerpts from Feinstein’s remarks follow:
“We are a great nation, we are capable of safeguarding our national security while simultaneously proceeding with humanity in addressing this crisis, and any future challenge this country faces.”
“But with adequate funding from this supplemental, which provides for immigration judge teams, legal representation and services, government immigration litigation attorneys, and courtroom equipment, among other things—this crisis can be managed and make the processing of children more efficient.”
Feinstein’s full remarks follow:
“I want to begin by saying the Appropriations Committee is in very good hands. Chairman Mikulski has done an excellent job, and I strongly support this supplemental that she has put together.
I want to give you just some brief background of my involvement in this issue, and the issue being the unaccompanied alien children.
It began around 1999. On Thanksgiving Day, a 5 year old in an inner-tube off the coast of Florida, 3 miles out, was picked up by a fisherman.
His name was Elian Gonzalez.
And the fisherman rescued him. He was taken to a hospital but his mother and 11 others on the raft had drowned in their attempt to come to the United States from Cuba.
Well that launched in this country a major debate, a major debate about an unaccompanied alien child, whether he goes back to his father, whether he remains with his uncle in Miami.
Then secondly, I’m home one day, and I turn on the television set, and I see a 15-year old Chinese girl, who had been placed on a container ship from China, in the cargo hold, by her parents, to flee China’s rigid family planning laws.
She came to this country. She was alone. She was desperate. She was picked up. I saw her asylum hearing. She was unrepresented. She was shackled. Her wrists were bound. And big tears were rolling down her face. She couldn’t understand a single word that was spoken. She was held in a jail cell for a year, and in another detention facility after that.
She eventually received asylum in our country, but she unnecessarily faced an ordeal no child should undergo. At the time, she was only one of 5,000 other foreign-born children, who were apprehended in the United States, in need of protection. I remember thinking that was so bad, and that I had to do something.
In 2000, I introduced the Unaccompanied Alien Protection Act. I also pushed for the change in the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which successfully transferred the responsibility for the care of unaccompanied alien children from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Department of Health and Human Services.
However, that change, by itself, was not enough to ensure that unaccompanied children are properly treated. Therefore, over the next six years, I continued to consult with the relevant federal agencies, children’s advocates, immigration attorneys, House members, such as Zoe Lofgren on the House Judiciary committee, and fellow senators.
Finally, in 2008, the legislation was included, amazingly enough by voice vote in both houses, as part of a larger trafficking bill, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, a long name. It was signed into law by President Bush on December 23rd, 2008. It took affect six months later. That year the number of children was in the vicinity of 8,000. It provided the framework for how unaccompanied children would be treated while in the United States and for their safe and orderly return to their home countries, without undue delay, if they did not qualify to stay.
We now have a dramatically escalated situation that was not foreseeable at that time. Last fiscal year, 2013, 24,000 children, unaccompanied, arrived in our country. This year, more than 50,000 unaccompanied children have arrived in our country. And the Department of Homeland Security is preparing for as many as 90,000 such children to arrive in the country by the end of this year.
The numbers are so great, and so unprecedented, that our federal agencies, understandably, are having difficulty carrying out the procedures and timelines in place.
I have sent members of my staff in California to every holding facility in the state and they have sent me photos. They have sent me their impressions. And I just want to take a word, take a moment, to thank all our people, whether it’s Border Patrol, ICE, or anyone else, or Homeland Security for the excellent job they are doing.
I saw through pictures and through reports numerous facilities, 8 to 10 of them, where children were in bright rooms, where they had beds, they had covers, and they had a day program. So every effort has been made. But the numbers are so great and unprecedented that the difficulties continue.
And when we run out of money, there’s going to be a different story.
So we’ve got to remember these children are primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Three Central American countries which are deeply troubled.
And many have entered as victims, I’m sorry to say, of rape, abuse, poverty and above all, violence. And they are alone, and they are subject to abuse and exploitation. They are young, they are unable to articulate their fears, their views, or testify about their needs as accurately as adults can.
Considering this, there’s no other option but for us to help and that’s what this supplemental does.
I’ve met with Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, the head of the Department of Health and Human Services, Sylvia Burwell. And both tell us that their agencies run out of funds by September.
So we must respond, and this is the response, today, for not only are they managing the current humanitarian crisis at our border, but they are also charged with protecting human life and our homeland security.
Earlier today, I met with immigration judges from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. They informed me that they are desperate for increased resources with which to handle not only the influx of children’s cases, but also a current backlog of 375,000 cases.
Now listen to this, due to there being only 243 immigration judges across the country, immigrants today wait 587 average days for a hearing. That’s a year and seven months before they have the opportunity to come before an immigration judge.
But with adequate funding from this supplemental, which provides for immigration judge teams, legal representation and services, government immigration litigation attorneys, and courtroom equipment, among other things— this crisis can be managed and make the processing of children more efficient.
One of the, and here’s the key thing, one of judges who sits in Miami, told me that through her court, where a child has representation, a voluntary return to the country of origin was able to be achieved in a majority of her cases.
So the majority of children actually took voluntary departure and returned to their country. Why? A judge can’t make a phone call, but they had the attorneys who could make the calls, do the necessary preparation, and see that a safe home could be arranged.
So because of this representation, over 60 percent of her cases went back home.
I understand there has been concern that unaccompanied children will not appear for their immigration court proceedings. That is simply not true. The fact is, whether represented or not, and this is a new number, 60.9 percent do appear and the number increases to 92.5 percent when represented by counsels.
So these children do get before a judge, 60.9 percent of them, and if they have a lawyer, 92 percent.
So with this supplemental funding, the immigration courts, with help from legal representatives, would be able to hear more quickly immigration cases, and determine, with justice, who may stay and who must go.
I was contacted recently by Winston Lord, a former U.S. Ambassador and Assistant Secretary of State, who is all-too familiar with managing situations of international crisis while preserving our national interest.
In reflecting on the current crisis, he acknowledged the need for effective border control and immigration enforcement to ensure national security and a comprehensive solution.
However, he also identified the heart of the matter here— that, and in quotes, “These challenges… need not be met by using ineffective and indiscriminate approaches that harm children.” He is right.
I’m getting a look from my chairman. Ok.
We are a great nation, we are capable of safeguarding our national security while simultaneously proceeding with humanity in addressing this crisis, and any future challenge this country faces.
This problem demands action now to provide these agencies with the funds they need to meet this crisis.
Now if we don’t pass this and if these departments run out of money and if facilities have to be closed and if there is nowhere for these children to go, let us think for a moment what happens to them.
Should they experience the same thing in this country that they have back home? What will they do? And what does that do to our conscience?
I think that this supplemental is well put together. The chairman of our committee has gone through it with a fine tooth comb. She has reduced it in size. I think it is well representative of the situation that dramatically needs funding.
So I really hope that there’s a heart in this body and that this supplemental appropriation is approved.
I thank the chair. I yield the floor.”