Washington Wednesday: Border solutions

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the last day of July, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. It’s time for Washington Wednesday.

Many factors are fueling the ongoing crisis at the southern border. Some lawmakers in Washington are grappling with potential solutions. One of them is here now to talk about the latest efforts. 

Senator Ron Johnson is a Republican from Wisconsin who serves as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. That committee is looking for ways to relieve the border crisis. 

Senator, good morning to you. 

JOHNSON: Good morning, Mary. How are you doing? 

REICHARD: I’m doing well. Thanks for coming on. Well, we’ve previously covered several angles of this story. We know there’s a surge of people coming from Central America. Most of them do not have valid asylum claims, but it takes time to adjudicate these cases, because the migrants are from countries other than Mexico. 

So what I’d like to talk about with you is the solutions lawmakers are working on. Let’s start with Operation Safe Return.

JOHNSON: Well, this is a pilot program that I worked with DHS to develop. And got three Democrats to actually sign a letter in support of. And the best way to describe it is we take existing authorities, we try to squeeze all the inefficiencies out of the adjudication process on asylum, and rapidly and more accurately determine those that clearly don’t have a valid legal claim to stay in this country and safely return them back to the safe regions of their home countries. 

That’s kind of a problem that’s really not talked about. There’s no doubt there’s dangerous areas in Central America. But there are also safe regions as well. And so we focus, currently, about 30 hours that an unaccompanied child stays within border patrol custody—and nobody would want to stay in those places because they’re not set up for it—but we really don’t focus on the true dimension of what’s happening in Central America. We don’t really talk about the human trafficking element and the risks these people are subjecting themselves, their children to. It’s a very dangerous journey—both on the way up and then if they’re in any way, shape, or form involved in involuntary servitude to these human traffickers, even once they get into America.

REICHARD: So what would be one or two practical things that Operation Safe Return will effect to do? 

JOHNSON: Well, first of all, it really will give us the data on who is claiming asylum and how valid the asylum claims are. That’s kind of the first problem we have is we have such a low bar to allow people to get into our adjudication process, even though when a claim is fully adjudicated, a very low percentage—probably only 10-15 percent is what—at best—what we have right now of people coming from Central America—are granted asylum. 

Most people are coming in—and very understandably so—they’re coming to America for the opportunity to work. But that’s not a valid asylum claim, and they’re in effect jumping in the front of the line from other people who have waited patiently legally to try to get into this country as a legal, permanent resident. 

REICHARD: Now some critics like Human Rights Watch have expressed concern that Operation Safe Return could expedite removal without proper safeguards. Is it possible some of these migrants might not get due process? 

JOHNSON: Well, we give migrants all kinds of due process, and the fact of the matter is we create these huge incentives and rewards for people to take advantage of our system, because it is such a broken system. 

Talk about adjudicating claim—right now I think it’s 800,000  to maybe 1 million people are backlogged in immigration courts. And we only complete a fraction of those court cases a year, which means that when you set such a low hurdle of people coming in that don’t have a valid asylum claim, we waive them in. So the system is completely broken. 

And what I would argue is that the first goal of our policy should be to reduce the flow of people taking a very dangerous journey, coming to this country, kind of jumping the front of the line without a valid asylum claim. 

So, the way to do that is to deter them, have a consequence like Michael Chertoff did in 2005. We had a surge of Brazillians taking advantage of our system, and so he set up a process of expedited removal called “Texas Hold’em” and within 60 days, the flow from Brazil was reduced by 90 percent. One year, 2005, we had 31,000 Brazillians come in. The next year, 1,400. 

But currently we’re up to about 495,000 people coming in the first nine months of this fiscal year alone—either as unaccompanied child, but primarily as a family unit—completely overwhelming our system. President Obama declared it a humanitarian crisis in 2014 where we had 137,000 unaccompanied children and family members. We’re already close to half-a-million in just nine months. 

So this is a growing problem. It’s out of control. And, by the way, I have to mention it’s not good for Central America to have their countries depopulated.

REICHARD: Well, Senator, you mentioned about the immigration court backlog and that becomes a draw in itself. It just gets worse and worse. Any idea how we can fix that and do you think it could happen anytime in the near future? 

JOHNSON: Well, again, the best way is to stop adding to the cases. So, reduce that flow by having that consequence of removing people that clearly don’t have a valid asylum claim so that people in Central America won’t mortgage their house, won’t indebt themselves to these human traffickers, won’t give them a year’s worth of salary. That is the best way. 

Otherwise, you’re just going to have to beef up more courts, more immigration judges, more immigration judge teams. That would be an unfortunate step we’d have to take, but it’s one we do have to take. We do need to adjudicate these claims quicker. 

But the real solution is narrow that gap between what is truly a valid asylum claim versus what is that initial hurdle under credible fear, so it’s a little closer to reality and we can send people back immediately without admitting them into a completely clogged judicial system. 

REICHARD: What legislative options are lawmakers looking at? 

JOHNSON: Well, unfortunately, legislation will probably be a ways in the future. This has become such a partisan issue. The legislation really ought to be directed toward really adjusting that asylum standard. Not the final standard, but the initial standard to close that gap. 

Other things we could do is give our law enforcement officials a little bit more time to hold people in custody. That’s important because if we don’t have somebody in custody and they are ordered removed, we are only able to remove about 7 percent of those people because we completely lose track of them. 

We don’t keep track of about 1.2 million people who have come in since 2012 when President Obama issued the DACA order—which, by the way, doesn’t apply to any of these people, but was used by the coyotes as an incentive for people to come to America. They said, “America’s changing its laws. Come on in, you’ll get a permiso,” they called it—a permission to enter the country. No, that was a notice to appear in court. And, of course, so many of them don’t even do that. 

So, again, it’s a completely broken system. It will require congressional action to completely fix it, but there may be some things like Operation Safe Return where we can start removing some people as a pretty potent signal to human traffickers that a bipartisan basis we’re going to start moving toward amending our laws so you can’t exploit our system any further. 

REICHARD: I know Operation Safe Return does have bipartisan support, but as you said, the two parties disagree more often than not on immigration. Do you see any legislative proposal that could become law? 

JOHNSON: Not anytime soon. I have a hard time, even if we could muster enough Democrats to support passage in the Senate, I have a hard time thinking Nancy Pelosi would give President Trump a win. In other words, America a win. 

This is a problem that spans parties. I mean, we should all admit that this is not good for Central America. We simply can’t assimilate this number of people. And, if you’re concerned about immigrants depressing American wages, it’s really people coming into this country illegally that are working in the shadows that can be exploited by unscrupulous employers, those types of contractors that, for example, bid or underbid legitimate contractors. So, there’s a reason why we have to fix this problem. 

Not to mention the fact that when you consider the unaccompanied children, 70 percent are male, 70 percent are 15 or older. Some of those unaccompanied children are going to accumulate in different areas where there might be gangs, where they’re certainly prone to getting recruited by gangs like MS-13 and exacerbate that problem in our country. 

REICHARD: Senator, is there anything you wish the public knew about this whole thing that we haven’t covered? 

JOHNSON: I think we really have focused on some of the dimensions, but the human trafficking. People need to realize we focus on that 30 hours or a number of days when family members are being held by Border Patrol. And they have facilities that are really more like police stations. They’re really not designed for this. 

But we don’t focus on the fact that the young girls that make that journey are given birth control because a pretty good percentage of them will be sexually assaulted or that a child was sold for $84 to be used by an adult just so that adult could enter as a family and get waived in. Or that some of these families are ending up in stash houses that are run by the human traffickers where they’re beaten. The beatings are videotaped and those video tapes are sent down to Central America demanding a ransom. 

So, there’s an element here—the involuntary servitude, the sex trade business, that type of thing—that we don’t focus on and we should because it’s a huge dimension of part of the problem here. 

REICHARD: Senator Ron Johnson is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Senator, thank you for taking time with us today. 

JOHNSON: Have a great day.

(AP Photo/Marco Ugarte) The hands of a youth from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico rests on the gate as he stops to watch a train pass, above the Rio Grande river on International Bridge 1 Las Americas, a legal port of entry which connects Laredo, Texas in the U.S. with Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Thursday, July 18, 2019. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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