WASHINGTON—Now that both sides of the aisle appear to agree that there is a humanitarian crisis taking place at the border, “mainly what we hear are crickets,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) as he unveiled legislation to deal with the crisis on May 2.
Cornyn and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) are planning to introduce the Humanitarian Upgrades to Manage and Assist our Nation’s Enforcement (HUMANE) Act of 2019, that will “not solve every problem, but it will have a huge impact,” according to Cornyn.
The bill aims to improve the conditions of detained families and streamline processing of both people and cargo at ports of entry.
Some of the proposals dovetail with ideas or initiatives other members of Congress or the White House have talked about, such as amending the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA).
Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act
TVPRA has been accused of exacerbating the crisis because it only allows the United States to repatriate minors to countries contiguous to the United States, mainly Mexico and Canada.
The HUMANE Act would allow the Secretary of State to work out agreements with non-contiguous countries for the return of unaccompanied children.
Speaking at a House Appropriations subcommittee on April 30, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan said he was working on a proposal to Congress that he indicated would include changes to TVPRA.
“We’ve heard from the governments of Central America saying ‘We have an interest in our unaccompanied children who have made their trek to the border. We’d like to be able to provide a safe return for them,’ but that’s not provided for right now under the TVPRA,” he said.
The White House on April 29 said the president was asking the executive branch to come up with regulations that would streamline court proceedings for those who passed the threshold for credible fear of persecution, and have all asylum claims adjudicated within about 6 months.
Similarly, the HUMANE Act directs the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General to “ensure that immigration proceedings and any claims for relief, including asylum, for an unaccompanied minor child are prioritized and expeditiously adjudicated.”
It also requires there to be at least two immigration judges assigned to each “southwest border family residential center or other southwest border location.”
As of last November, about a quarter of the 791,821 backlogged immigration cases dealt with credible fear.
But only about 6 percent of those screened for credible fear, according to the Department of Justice, were eligible for asylum.
The other issue the HUMANE Act addresses is the 1997 Flores settlement that made it so that children must be released from government custody within 21 days. In 2015, that settlement was amended by a court ruling to include the family traveling with the child.
Flores combined with TVPRA has made it so that if an adult from Central America or other non-contiguous country (currently 70 percent of the migrants coming to the border are from three Central American countries), comes with a child, they are almost assuredly released into the United States within three weeks, and sometimes in a matter of hours.
The HUMANE Act absolves the Secretary of Homeland Security from implementing the settlement, and says he “may not use any Federal Funds to implement such agreement, with respect to an alien child … if such child is accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has said the is planning to introduce legislation that would likewise amend the Flores agreement.
“The Flores decision needs to change,” he said on Fox News. “It’s impossible to do a hearing in 20 days. So we’re going to try to change the time you can hold a unaccompanied minor, or a minor child beyond 20 days because if you come up with a family and you’ve got minor kids in the family, we release the whole family in 20 days because you don’t want to separate families.”
Graham has yet to put forward his legislation, but aides for Cornyn’s office said his office is aware of the HUMANE Act.
Cornyn and Cuellar introduced another HUMANE Act in 2014 when the United States was seeing a surge in unaccompanied children arriving at the border. The “HUMANE” in that bill stood for “Helping Unaccompanied Minors and Alleviating National Emergency Act,” and never made it through either chamber of Congress.
When asked what gives the 2019 version of the HUMANE Act an advantage over its predecessor, Cornyn attributed it to timing, noting a “growing sense of unease” among lawmakers.
“Henry and I have had conversations, his conversations with his colleagues that, you know, the status quo is not sustainable. This is getting worse every day, and so that is what I think has changed,” he said.