July 23, 2014 - Issue: Vol. 160, No. 116 — Daily Edition113th Congress (2013 - 2014) - 2nd Session
REFUGEE CRISIS; Congressional Record Vol. 160, No. 116
(Senate - July 23, 2014)
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[Pages S4846-S4848] From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov] REFUGEE CRISIS Mr. BLUMENTHAL. Mr. President, while presiding for a couple of hours just now I listened to some very powerful and eloquent debate organized by the Presiding Officer--I thank him for doing so--regarding the migrant unaccompanied children who are coming across our border. Those remarks moved and inspired me. They were followed afterward by an effort by Senators Shaheen and others to bring to the floor a measure on energy efficiency. The connection between the two may not seem immediately apparent. But, in fact, I was struck by the irony of an effort by some of our colleagues to eliminate and repeal, in effect, a measure called the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. It is actually named the Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, very symbolically and significantly named after a leader who sought to abolish the slave trade. Our colleagues who seek to repeal, in effect, that measure are calling its provisions a ``loophole'' because it provides for screening of migrant children, such as those who are reaching our border, who are not from the immediate bordering countries. They are from other Central American countries. They are seeking to apply to them the same procedures or lack of procedures, lack of screening, lack of individual consideration that apply to migrant children from Canada and Mexico on the theory that those provisions are a ``loophole'' in our law. In fact, those screening procedures are the very intent and substance of our law. They are meant to provide individual, careful, fair consideration of each child. On a day when consideration of the energy efficiency bill named for Senators Shaheen and Portman was blocked from consideration, colleagues are considering a measure and advocating a measure that is completely unnecessary. The Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill is vitally necessary. The repeal of the Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act of 2008 is entirely unnecessary, in fact unhelpful and downright harmful. The question of what to do about the flow of migrant children to our border is one of profound importance for our Chamber and our country to face in the coming days and weeks. I recently visited the border in a trip organized, thankfully, by Senator Hirono and joined by Senator Murkowski. We met Senator Cornyn while we were there. We went to various of the facilities to see for ourselves and speak with the children who were coming to our borders, the professionals who were seeking to care for them, the Border Patrol agents endeavoring to enforce the law, all of whom are involved in this situation on the ground. That experience has formed--I hesitate to say transformed, but it has certainly changed my view of this problem, because we speak in this body about these unaccompanied minors, as they are called, as though they are an interchangeable mass. They are massive in numbers, but each is an individual. Each has a story to tell. Each is different. They have in common, most of them, stories of horror and terror, vicious persecution, cruelty and brutality, rape, murder, and forced prostitution in the countries they are seeking to escape. This brutality is spawned by gang [[Page S4847]] warfare, the result of conflict among gangs trading in drugs; cartels and organized crime that have put children in the middle of their murderous activities. As others during that eloquent colloquy organized by the Presiding Officer observed, much of that drug trade has moved from Colombia to Central America. It is fueled by demand, the same demand that fuels the Colombian gang warfare, from the United States. The demand comes from this country, the demand for those illicit drugs. Those children, caught in the horrific violence plaguing their home, have fled to this country seeking safety and security. Many of them are also seeking their parents, because the majority have one or more parent in this country already. The vast majority have a close relative, if not a parent, an aunt or uncle. So their journey seeks to reunify them with their families, as well as to escape the grisly, grinding horror of their existence in those homelands they have left. Those journeys are plagued by the harshest, most inhumane of conditions: deserts, swamps and, most dangerously, the traffickers. The smugglers who exploit them put them in stash houses, take them hostage, hold them for ransom, threaten their lives, and often rape and murder them, preventing them from reaching this country. These faces are of the children I saw, with fear in their eyes, fear of all adults, because most of the adults in their lives have been a threat, not a protector; fear in their eyes about the Border Patrol agents who are there when they arrive at the loading dock at the McAllen border facility. It is a loading dock where produce or goods might be dumped or left to be shipped elsewhere. They arrive at the loading dock and sit on a bench, fear in their eyes, apprehension in their voices. They are then interviewed by the Border Patrol, who are wearing uniforms, looking like the authoritarian figures they are. In the lives of these children, the police are not a source of comfort, they are a source of danger because in their country the police are corrupt and a threat, not a protector. They are not apprehended by the Border Patrol; they surrender to them. Border security is not the issue. Again, as some of my colleagues remarked earlier, these children are coming in to give themselves up in the hope of being taken into custody, fed, housed, and given some basic security and safety. Their numbers are down--anywhere from 30 to 50 percent down in July as compared to June, so we were told by the Border Patrol agent. Whether that is a temporary phenomenon or a trend remains to be seen, but the numbers are down. After this holding detention center, where they are kept in cement- floor cellblocks, segregated by age and gender, so densely packed that they can barely sit let alone lie down, and provided with foil blankets, they are sent to more permanent facilities, such as the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where we also visited. That facility has a dormitory, a health clinic, a school. Classes are conducted in tents, and the treatment is far more humane. They are given classes in English. They are eager--intensely eager--to learn English, and they are taught in classrooms in these tents where there is a blackboard and an American flag outside an artificial turf soccer field, where they are intensely eager to play soccer. They stay there about 7 days to 3 weeks until they are moved to a home because many of them have relatives. Most of them have some family members in this country or another facility. They move from one temporary facility to a better one and then to a home. In the second facility, they are in the custody of the HHS or the Office of Refugee Settlement, not the Border Patrol. It is a better facility, no question, but still rudimentary. One of the most powerful moments of this trip was to watch these students--I would say about 20 of them in a class--show how they were learning English, show the words they have learned and tell us where they were from--Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador--and then to rise to show us Senators how they could recite the Pledge of Allegiance. We joined with them in reciting that pledge. I wish my colleagues--I wish every American could have been there at that moment. There was something basic, fundamental about us as Americans in that moment, about what we offer--hope, opportunity, freedom, and protection--to people who come here with that aspiration, that those children epitomized at that moment. Whether you agree or disagree on what should be done, whether you feel we ought to do something differently with these children, that moment evoked a fundamental value in our society. Another moment did as well--when a busload arrived. As we were about to leave, the staff of that facility lined up on both sides of the children coming off the bus into the facility, clapping for them. The staff was clapping and cheering for these children arriving at the facility, after leaving the border crossing where they were under the custody of the Border Patrol agents. They were clapping and cheering for children who recently arrived in this country, and the children were beaming. The staff and the professionals who care for these children are truly to be thanked. They are dedicated professionals--the Border Patrol agents who do their very best to make these kids feel at home under very adverse conditions; the HHS counselors and teachers who seek to interview them, give them some basic hope and comfort; all of the professionals in the Office of Refugee Resettlement who seek against the odds to provide them with a future. The mayor of McAllen, who runs a small town on the border--which is where that border crossing is, where the McAllen facility is housed--I think many of us expected him to complain to us about the burden of this flood of children coming into his town, the expenditure of resources necessary to support the infrastructure, the burden on him and his fellow townspeople. To the contrary, the mayor of McAllen, Jim Darling, said to us that they welcome these children. They regard the border as part of their home. They have an interchange in culture and family. He said to us, in effect--I don't remember whether they were his exact words--about welcoming these children: This is what we do. We are Americans. This is what we do. We are Americans--not asking for reimbursement for the expenses for his town, although it is a significant part of his budget. Comparable to the Federal Government, it would be in the billions. His budget is much smaller, so the proportion, obviously, is much less, but it is a major fiscal burden on McAllen. Mayor Jim Darling impressed us and inspired us with his willingness to welcome these children--at least to care for them while the law is enforced. That is the point I want to emphasize to my colleagues tonight. What is needed is not a repeal of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. What is needed is not to send these children back without screening or consideration. What is needed is not a wholesale closing of due process. It is enforcement of that law, resources to enforce that law, resources to provide the immigration judges and the advocates who are so desperately needed for these children. After all, they look at any authoritarian figure with fear, even the teachers, many of them, as well as the border agents who seek to elicit from them those stories about why they fled their home. They fear retaliation from anyone who might learn they are talking about the reasons they left. They need spokespeople for this process, and they need the individual consideration, child by child by child. That is what the law requires. That law should be enforced, not repealed. Enforcement also means border security. It means better facilities while they are under care of the Department of HHS as well as the Border Patrol. It means that we support State officials if they provide State facilities. Those decisions about where, when, and how many should be made by State officials, but the Federal Government can support them. That is why I thank Senator Mikulski for her leadership on the supplemental, as well as the Presiding Officer for his leadership in organizing the colloquy earlier today because raising awareness, as well as resources, is what is necessary to make sure we reunite these children with their families when, in fact, their request for asylum is justified child by child, justified by [[Page S4848]] the facts and the evidence, upheld by due process, by justice and by fairness--not demonizing, as may be done by calling out the National Guard or denouncing children who are doing nothing more--6-, 7-, 8-, 9- , 10-year-olds--than seeking safety and security. Their courage, as well as their resilience, finally, was inspiring as well. Having crossed so many miles, against so many obstacles, in the face of so many threats, their smiles as they recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States of America is the picture I will have in advocating a bipartisan solution, long-term immigration reform, and a fair and just resolution to their fight as they seek freedom and security in our great Nation, the greatest country in the history of the world. ____________________