Senator James Lankford (R-OK) toured the Rio Grande Valley sector of the southern border, near McAllen, TX, with Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials. Lankford requested the tour in order to provide oversight of facility conditions and operations and further assess the areas Congress needs to address in law in our immigration, asylum, and detention procedures.

Lankford toured the Hidalgo Port of Entry, which is a large pedestrian access and processing point on the border. There, Lankford assessed pedestrian processing, which includes biometrics, vehicle and bus arrivals to the Port as well as admissibility processing at the Port, where the Office of Field Operations can assess credible fear, determine a minor’s status as an unaccompanied alien child (UAC), process family units, and help determine guardianship for minors. Lankford then toured the Donna Holding facility, which is a soft-sided temporary facility used to process family units who cross the border between ports of entry. He also received a briefing at the McAllen Border Patrol Station about the work of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in stopping drug trafficking and processing migrants crossing the border, which includes protecting young children who have been victimized by loopholes in our immigration system. Lankford then toured the Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center, a hard-sided facility used to house and process migrant children and families when they are apprehended between ports. Finally, he participated in a night-time ride-along along of the southern border to assess security protocols for monitoring the border in the dark, as cartels often wait until the sun sets to smuggle people and drugs into the country.

“After spending all day and part of the night at the busiest illegal border crossing area in America, I am grateful again for the career law enforcement professionals that serve our nation every day,” said Lankford. “The women and men who work to protect our nation from illegal drug smuggling and human trafficking, also facilitate billions of dollars of legal trade. When the funding was not provided for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention beds, thousands of people quickly backed up in CBP temporary holding areas. The snowball effect of refusing to properly fund ICE, along with the flood of migrants gaming the immigration law that forces adults who cross the border with a child to be released within 20 days, has created a serious humanitarian crisis. CBP is now essentially conducting the mission of ICE to hold migrants while their next step is evaluated. The Border Patrol agents are doing everything they can to manage a humanitarian crisis that they are not designed, nor equipped to handle. Now, a record number of men traveling with a child has created a massive influx of illegal migration with nowhere to hold them. A temporary holding facility in McAllen, designed to hold 1,500 people for a short time, is instead holding more than 1,500 people for days or weeks. DHS has constructed an enormous ‘soft-sided’ facility to hold thousands of family units, but the problem persists due to a lack of space in ICE facilities. I dropped in on multiple processing and housing facilities along the border; all of them had shelves full of food, water, clothing, and hygiene products. Each facility had medical care, showers, washers and dryers, and phones for migrants to contact their home country’s consulates.

“Our border facilities were designed for single individuals, mostly from Mexico, who could be processed and returned to their home country quickly if they had no legal justification to be in the US. Now the border holding areas are filled with adults from all over the world, many of them with a child. Sometimes the child is traveling with their mom or dad; sometimes they are traveling with another adult in their family or from their village. But sometimes small children are being ‘rented’ by smugglers to help adult males cross the border more easily. Children continue to be abandoned or face severe conditions in the desert. This problem needs to be addressed by Congress. Only Congress can close the child migrant loopholes that encourages child smuggling. When a person is arrested by CBP, criminal background information is requested from their home country, but it often takes longer than 20 days from many countries. In those cases, the person is released into our country before law enforcement learns that the adult has a criminal record in his or her home country or that he or she is fleeing a criminal warrant for their arrest. We also must be able to hold individuals longer than 20 days, regardless of their age, because of the time it takes to get criminal information from other countries. In just the Rio Grande Valley area, people from more than 63 countries including Afghanistan, Syria, Bangladesh, China, Yemen, Pakistan, Cuba, Venezuela, and many Asian and African countries have been arrested this year. This is not just a Central America problem, but the southern border has become a conduit for many other areas of the world—and the cartels in Mexico facilitate human trafficking as their business practice.”

Lankford continued, “As I rode along with our border law enforcement at night, I personally watched a group of adults traveling with children move across the border. Then moments later, while law enforcement was processing the family units, a different group of single adults unsuccessfully tried to slip past border patrol a mile away. Later in the evening, the border patrol agents were simultaneously interdicting family units on the road, a group of single men working through the swampy cane fields, and a raft of narcotics crossing the river. Their job is dangerous, hot, and difficult. But the only complaint I heard from any federal agent protecting our country was their consistent frustration that some in Washington and the national media continue to tell a false story about them and their work. None of them claimed that law enforcement was always above reproach, but all of them could tell stories about lives they have saved, drugs they have interdicted and ways they have personally served poor families as they illegally cross into the US. I do not understand why some of my colleagues have chosen to demonize our federal law enforcement, rather than help them with the legal tools they need to protect our country.

“It was ironic to see the makeshift processing center for 1,500 to 2,000 daily illegal crossings literally under an international bridge that carries thousands of people legally crossing into the US each day. The US has the most open immigration system in the world. I walked the pedestrian and vehicle crossing area at McAllen and saw the security features and the constant legal movement of people from Mexico into the US. Our border is not difficult to cross legally. But cartels in Mexico have created a multi-billion dollar business of moving people illegally across our border. We can either ignore the problem and assist the cartels or we can address the problem and stop child smuggling and human trafficking. It is time to address the serious legal and funding problems at our southern border.”

Lankford remains a vocal advocate for fixing our broken immigration system, including issues within the Trafficking Victims Protection act (TVPRA), our inefficient and lengthy asylum process, and issues arising from the Flores settlement. Last week, Lankford joined a letter to President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan, and Attorney General William Barr to urge the implementation of Operation Safe Return—a pilot program using existing law and authorities to rapidly, accurately, and fairly determine and process credible fear claims.

In a June Homeland Security hearing, Lankford questioned DHS and ICE officials and shared his frustration that Congress clearly knows what the issues are and yet is inactive to fix them at this point. Lankford supported supplemental humanitarian aid to provide funding to DHS and the Departments of Defense and Justice to address the humanitarian crisis at the southern border.

Lankford also previously questioned Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan on the agency’s plan to address the rapidly growing humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border. Lankford has been pushing for Congress to address issues with the legal loopholes for the immigration system for two years. In April, Lankford reintroduced bipartisan legislation, the Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act, with Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Tom Carper (D-DE). The bill requires the Department of Health and Human Services to keep better track of and care for unaccompanied minors.