WASHINGTON (CN) – A border wall will not stop the surge of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, Senator Lindsey Graham said Tuesday in a hearing where he encouraged Democratic colleagues to send his bill aimed at fixing the ongoing immigration crisis to a full vote on the Senate floor.
But Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee continued to condemn the Trump administration’s policies at the southern border and sought more information from Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan on practices like separating immigrant children from their parents and using DNA testing to determine if minors are related to asylum seekers.
Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and chairman of the committee, has proposed legislation called the Secure and Protect Act that would require immigrants to apply for asylum at processing centers in Central American and Mexico and would allow for longer detention of undocumented children.
“No amount of money going to Central America will stop this problem unless we change our laws. No wall will stop this problem,” Graham reiterated following Tuesday’s hearing. “They’re not trying to avoid detection. They are trying to be caught to claim asylum.”
The United States already has such a process. People who apply for political asylum in their home countries, and are granted it, are admitted to the United States as refugees. People who enter without inspection and apply for asylum and are granted it are known as asylees.
Democrats argued the bill does nothing to address the economic deprivation and violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador driving the majority of asylum seekers to U.S. borders.
Graham also said after the hearing let out that he would be willing to send more money to Central America but Democrats would have to set aside some priorities and pass his bill or face political backlash.
“They’re going to own this disaster if they continue to reject changing our laws. They will completely own this, it will be a disaster in 2020,” the senator said.
Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii voiced confusion over President Donald Trump’s decision to cut aid to the Central American countries.
But McAleenan said during the hearing that the funding block was necessary to assess whether the humanitarian organizations facilitating U.S.-funded aid programs are accountable partners, ensuring the use of tax dollars results in an appropriate return on investment.
Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa and other Republicans repeatedly condemned a practice they referred to as “child recycling,” in which an immigrant can pay to have a minor accompany them across the U.S. border to improve their chance of gaining asylum status.
But Senator Dirk Durbin, D-Ill., criticized using this practice as justification for border patrol agents carrying out DNA tests on adults with accompanying children.
When McAleenan said tests carried out at the southwest border resulted in 15% of adults’ DNA not matching the minor in their care, Durbin said the acting secretary surely was not suggesting that number represents the general trend among all immigrants crossing the border.
McAleenan agreed but said the number cannot be ignored.
“There is no excuse, none, for misrepresenting that a child is your own,” Durbin said. “But this notion that we can somehow dismiss 85% of children because some are abusing that representation of parental responsibility troubles me greatly.”
Durbin also asked McAleenan if he believed President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy that resulted in 2,800 family separations from 2017 to 2018 was effective.
The acting secretary acknowledged it was not and resulted in the loss of public trust in his department.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., inquired as to the number of families separated since June 2018, when a federal judge put a stop to the policy.
“I just want a hard number, which I can’t find anywhere,” Feinstein said.
McAleenan, who took over leadership of the Department of Homeland Security when Kirstjen Nielsen resigned in April, assured the ranking member that only 0.36% of children are currently being separated from accompanying adults at the border and only when the child’s safety is an issue of concern.
But the statistic that did not satisfy the senator, who stressed children should not be made victims in this crisis.
Graham’s proposed bill includes a provision that would require the attorney general to hire an additional 500 immigration judges.
This would help tackle the backlog of immigration cases currently numbering upwards of 900,000, according to McAleenan, who said 350,000 of those cases are asylum seekers.
Feinstein said she also has drawn up plans to restore humane conditions at the border and improve the immigration process for recent arrivals through the Protecting Families and Improving Immigration Procedures Act, a bill proposed last week that similarly provides additional immigration court judges and law clerks.
But Feinstein’s proposed staffing upgrade includes lawyers to represent unaccompanied children separated from their accompanying adults at the border.
“Too often young children, including toddlers, have been forced to represent themselves in immigration court,” Feinstein said.