Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Wednesday rejected the idea that children are flooding across the U.S.-Mexico border because of the perception that the Obama administration is not enforcing immigration laws and may grant these children amnesty or delay deportation proceedings.
Johnson was pressed on this issue several times at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing by Republicans. GOP senators cited press reports in which many Central Americans said they believe their children would be able to remain in the United States if they could reach the country.
But each time, Johnson said, the flood of children is mainly caused by poor economic conditions their home countries.
“I believe that the situation is motivated primarily by the conditions in the countries that they’re leaving, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala,” he said.
That answer left Republicans like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) flabbergasted. Sessions openly charged Johnson, President Obama and others with sending a muddled message to Central American on amnesty, which has led to a dangerous surge of unaccompanied children at the border.
“Your leadership and the president’s leadership has failed to send a clear message throughout the world that you can only come to the United States lawfully,” Sessions said. “In fact, you’ve conveyed a message that conveys just the opposite.
Sessions also said Johnson’s statement at the hearing failed to stress that DHS would enforce the law.
“Nothing I’ve seen in your reported statements is a clear message to the world, ‘they must not come illegally to America,’ ” Sessions said. “Have you said that anytime recently?”
Johnson seemed to evade that question, and replied: “I’ve told my staff that we need to consider all options to deal with this situation.” But with more questions, Sessions was finally able to drag out an admission from Johnson that the attempted border crossings are illegal.
“I am prepared to say that a parent should not send a child across our southwest border … because it is illegal and it is dangerous,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), whose state is the temporary home to thousands of illegal immigrants, said Johnson’s refusal to admit that perceptions of amnesty may be driving the flood of children is “naive at best and very destructive at worst.” Flake asked if Johnson would allow that perceptions of possible amnesty might be a factor at all.
But Johnson said he can’t control perceptions, and repeated that he believes the main motivator is poor economic conditions in Central America.
Johnson also refused to agree with Flake that a strong message from President Obama might help stem the flow of these children. Flake suggested a message from Obama would help, but Johnson only committed generally to the need for some kind of public relations campaign.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) also argued that perceptions about non-enforcement and possible amnesty is driving the crisis at the border. But again, Johnson said he is “not sure” he agrees that this is the main motivator.
Johnson went further by arguing that the best way to help resolve the border problem would be to pass the Senates immigration bill. Johnson said that bill includes new border enforcement funding that would help officials regain control over what Johnson admitted is a crisis of “humanitarian proportions.”
That also confused Republicans, many of whom have said its creation of a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants would only create more incentives for illegal immigration. But Johnson said the Senate bill would only apply to immigrants who arrived before 2011, and that passage of the bill would resolve the uncertainty about U.S. immigration policy.
But that’s didn’t convince Republicans.
“The crisis along the border involving these minors, I think… can be attributed to the president’s policies,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa.). “It’s clear to me, and to agents interviewing these children, that this surge is partly due to the promises of immigration reform and administrative amnesty.”
Grassley also cited the administration’s release of 36,000 illegal immigrants, some of whom have criminal records.
“If you’re releasing tens of thousands of individuals each year, how will anybody in a foreign country think that we’re serious about enforcing the laws?” he asked.