A Republican lawmaker said over the weekend that illegal immigrant children may be able to live freely in the United States for up to two or three years with parents or guardians before being required to show up for an immigration hearing.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services on Saturday that asked dozens of questions about how the more than 57,000 unaccompanied immigrant children are being cared for and processed. In one of his questions, he cited a lawyer in his home state who said the Department of Homeland Security is setting up immigration hearings several years after the unaccompanied alien children arrive.
Demonstrator Alex Ferguson holds a sign reading 'No Vacancy, Try The White House' during a protest near the entrance to the US Border Patrol facility in Murrieta, California on July 7. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) says that according to a lawyer in his home state, illegal immigrants are waiting several years before their immigration hearing is held. AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck
"An immigration attorney in Tulsa states that Notice to Appear (NTA) documents are currently being provided with dates to appear 2-3 years in the future," Bridenstine's letter said. "What is being done to track the UAC and their sponsors during this time?"
Bridenstine is likely to hear back that HHS does nothing to track unaccompanied alien children while they await their immigration hearing. Just last week, an HHS official said in a Senate hearing that HHS does not ask whether the parents or guardians who pick up these children are legally living in the United States themselves, and said getting the children to their immigration hearings is the job of Homeland Security.
In a separate Senate hearing, a Department of Justice official said that 46 percent of children never show up for their hearing at all.
The idea that children can stay in the U.S. for up to three years before their immigration hearing date would seem to back up GOP arguments that children are flooding across the southern U.S. border because they believe they have a good chance of staying in the country, at least for a little while.
The Obama administration has requested $3.7 billion from Congress in order to back up its efforts to process children as they cross the border. The request is aimed at both helping DHS detain these children, and helping HHS provide longer-term care — including medical and legal services — to these children before they are picked up by relatives as they await their immigration hearing.
But Republicans have mostly balked at this proposal by saying it is aimed only at processing the flood of children, but would do nothing to stop them from coming in the first place. The GOP says the Obama administration should instead be seeking a change in the law that would allow DHS to immediately deport children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has also said that illegal immigrants should also have to wear ankle monitors so they can be tracked while waiting for their immigration hearing.
Bridenstine was originally told he cannot tour the immigration detention facility at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, without an appointment. He was then allowed into that facility on Saturday, and he toured it with Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).
Bridenstine said he was "impressed with the professionalism and compassion" of people working at the facility, but said his visit confirmed his fear that children are being abused and even killed as they travel to the United States. He said HHS officials told him that human traffickers have tried to take custody of some of these children from HHS.
The letter Bridenstine sent to HHS asked several dozen questions, including what percentage of children are being given to undocumented parents, and whether HHS tracks the age of these children and whether they are victims of abuse.
He also asked what percentage of children aid smugglers to get across the border, and whether border officials are having any problems enforcing the border because of environmental restrictions that keep them from entering certain border areas. Read Bridenstine's full letter here: