Smuggling cartels are poised to make $2.5 billion off trafficking in illegal immigrants this year, top border officials told Congress on Wednesday, as they pleaded with lawmakers to make the changes needed to discourage families from making the dangerous journey north.
Kevin K. McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said cartels are “profiting tremendously” off the misery of migrants, who pay $5,000 or more per person to wait in stash houses, then are guided across the border and driven into the U.S. interior.
Across the Capitol, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen made her own plea for Congress to act, saying something must be done to rein in record-breaking numbers of children and families being enticed to make the trip.
She used words like “humanitarian catastrophe” and “chain of human misery” to describe what she’s seeing at the border: children being “recycled” by human traffickers, about a third of women sexually assaulted on the journey, and sicker migrants being dropped in remote areas by the smugglers who control their routes.
She said the U.S. government has to administer pregnancy tests to all girls over the age 10, because of the prevalence of rape during the trip.
“The crisis is real,” Ms. Nielsen said, facing Congress for the first time since Democrats took control of the House and gained power to thwart the president’s plans.
Democrats aren’t buying the warnings, saying families surging toward the U.S. are refugees in need of protection, not invaders to be met with walls and arrests and detention.
“Real border security cannot be achieved by building a wall on the southern border, blocking asylum seekers, or separating children from their parents,” Rep. Benny G. Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told Ms. Nielsen.
Democrats also accused Ms. Nielsen of being unprepared, questioning why she had ready answers for GOP lawmakers’ questions but was unable to answer their own inquiries on topics such as how many vacancies there are at CBP, how many juvenile illegal immigrants have gang ties or how often environmental laws have been waived to build border fencing.
For much of the hearing, she and the committee’s Democrats were talking past each other.
They disagreed on whether children are kept in “cages,” whether last year’s “zero-tolerance” border policy was actually a family separation policy, and whether people are being turned away when they try to ask for asylum at a port of entry.
When Ms. Nielsen said anyone who is on U.S. soil has a chance to ask for asylum, Rep. Nanette Barragan said she’s personally seen cases where that’s not true. She said she was coming through a border crossing with her mother this weekend and saw a man from Honduras say he wanted to apply for asylum. She said he was told to “go away.”
“You have no feelings, no compassion, no empathy here,” Ms. Barragan told the secretary.
Ms. Nielsen countered that her “heart breaks for the system that we have,” saying it leaves people vulnerable on the journey and leaves the country open to drug trafficking.
She said they are anticipating nearly 1 million illegal immigrants caught at the border in fiscal year 2019.
“These increases will overwhelm the system entirely. This is not a manufactured crisis, this is truly an emergency,” she said.
The public, though, isn’t buying it.
A new Quinnipiac University Poll released Wednesday found 55 percent of American voters oppose the Trump administration’s plans for a border wall. And even more — 66 percent — reject the president’s emergency declaration.
Mr. McAleenan, a 17-year veteran of the border agency, said walls do work.
He said they have identified 316 miles of the 1,954-mile border that need new fencing. Some 374 miles currently have a fence, and another 280 miles have vehicle barriers but no fence.
He also told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the family separations are mostly a thing of the past, with only one separation a day on average at this point, out of 1,400 families a day.
Separations that do still happen only occur when the parent is deemed a danger to the child.
He said more common is a situation where an illegal immigrant claims to be a parent, but is lying. Over the last 10 months, he said Border Patrol agents identified 1,700 cases where adults showed up fraudulently claiming to be parents.
Mr. McAleenan said that’s spurred an industry in Central American providing fake birth certificates to try to game the U.S. system, which allows families with children to be quickly released into the country.
Less than 2 percent of them are deported, according to CBP statistics from 2017.
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