Chairman Peters, Ranking Member Portman, and distinguished Members of the Committee, good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today.
This hearing addresses a subject of intense focus at the Department of Homeland Security.
We are addressing the needs of unaccompanied children who arrive at our southern border without a parent or legal guardian, children who have fled torture, persecution, extreme violence, and poverty, many who have crossed Mexico in the grasp of smugglers with the hope of reaching safety and uniting with their parent or close relative here in the United States. These are children, many of tender age.
To address the needs of these children, we mobilized capabilities from our different agencies and offices. We called upon the dedication, expertise, and talent of the workforce of the Department of Homeland Security. I am privileged to speak with you today about the challenges we confronted, the actions we have taken to overcome those challenges, and the extraordinary results we have achieved thus far.
First, the challenges. We began our work with systems and tools that the prior administration had dismantled, and with assistance programs that had been torn down or cut short. We had to rebuild while at the same time addressing the surge of unaccompanied children that had begun in April of 2020, many months before we took office, and our efforts had to be undertaken in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We are dedicated to an orderly, safe, and humane immigration system, and therefore we stopped the prior administration’s policy of expelling the unaccompanied children. We did not turn them away.
Because the prior administration failed to increase the Department of Health and Human Services’ capacity to receive the unaccompanied children from Border Patrol stations within the required timeframe, children were staying in Border Patrol stations for too long. As I have said before, a Border Patrol station is no place for a child.
In late March, more than 5,700 children were in Border Patrol Stations, and the average length of their stay was 133 hours. We managed the situation because of, quite simply, the selfless dedication – the heroism – of the United States Border Patrol.
I repeated then what I had said two weeks earlier: that we have a plan, that we are executing on our plan, and that it will take time. This is what we do, and we know how to do it.
On March 13, I directed our Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to support an all-of-government effort to assist HHS in transferring and sheltering the children.
Then, I directed our expert U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services personnel to serve as caseworkers to further support HHS, helping unite the children with their verified relatives here in the U.S.
Our Department’s dedicated and talented workforce volunteered to provide further assistance.
We also deployed our Chief Medical Officer and his team’s expertise, instituting COVID-19 health and safety protocols and mobilizing additional medical teams, including those of the United States Coast Guard.
It is now about six weeks later. On March 29, more than 5,700 children were in Border Patrol stations. Two days ago, there were 455. On March 29, 4,078 children were in Border Patrol stations more than the maximum-allowed 72 hours. Two days ago, there were none. On March 29, the average length of time a child spent in a Border Patrol station was 133 hours. Two days ago, on May 11, the average time was 22 hours.
The challenge is not behind us, but the results are dramatic. And, not only did we mobilize the talented workforce of the Department of Homeland Security, in partnership with our colleagues at HHS. We have also been reengineering the process from start to finish and creating new efficiencies. These changes are reducing the time a child spends in the shelter and care of HHS before being united with her or his parent or legal guardian here in the U.S.
More broadly, to effect more foundational change, our immigration strategy focuses on three key areas:
First, we are addressing the root causes of migration from the Northern Triangle countries, addressing the reasons why families send their children in the first place.
Second, we are building legal pathways for children and others to come to the United States if they qualify under the laws that Congress passed many years ago, so that they do not think they have to take the dangerous journey north.
And third, we are urging you to pass immigration reform. We are all in agreement that the system is broken. We need to come together to pass the proposed legislation that fixes the broken system.
Thank you again for the opportunity to be here today. I look forward to answering your questions.
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