HARRISONBURG — House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte has lined up officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and more for a hearing on the sudden surge of undocumented children crossing the southern U.S. border.
Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, wrote a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson on Thursday asking more than 20 questions about the situation. Goodlatte said his committee has “repeatedly” sought answers from the department, but its responses are insufficient.
The hearing, titled “An Administration Made Disaster: The South Texas Border Surge of Unaccompanied Alien Minors,” is set for 2 p.m. Wednesday and includes five witnesses. Goodlatte said President Barack Obama’s policies, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, have contributed to thousands of unaccompanied, undocumented children coming into the country over the past few weeks.
The DACA program — an Obama administration initiative that began in summer 2012 — grants children who immigrated here illegally the chance for a two-year reprieve from deportation, subject to renewal, for as long as they meet certain criteria.
Regarding the recent surge, White House officials have said most children are from Central America where economic conditions and violence have driven them out.
Those who are caught are being held at two military bases and other shelters in the Southwest and West.
Federal officials had intended to house some of those detained at the shuttered St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va., but scrapped the plan this week in the face of local opposition.
Goodlatte said the wrong message is being sent to Central Americans that they should feel comfortable coming to the United States because they can practically “disappear” and not be turned away.
“This is a symptom of the problem we have, the lack of enforcement,” he said in an interview Thursday. “It’s an administration-made disaster. … I think it will be a very useful hearing.”
On Friday, the Obama administration announced new steps to address the issue, including opening new detention facilities along the border.
Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the administration also will send more immigration judges, ICE attorneys and other immigration officials to the region to help process the immigrants and, when possible, quickly return them to their home countries, according to The Associated Press.
In a statement, Goodlatte said the measures are “nothing but smoke and mirrors.”
“Many of the children, teen-agers, and adults arriving at the border are able to game our asylum and immigration laws because the Obama [a]dministration has severely weakened them and many thousands have already been released into the interior of the United States,” the statement says. “What does President Obama plan to do with those who have already been released from custody?”
Goodlatte is a central figure in talks for immigration reform because the Judiciary Committee oversees bills related to the issue.
The Democratic-controlled Senate has passed a comprehensive reform package, but the Republican-led House favors a piecemeal approach.
Goodlatte has focused on a systematic approach to change, starting with better enforcement of existing laws, he says.
Lawmakers — and the American public, he says — pushing for better enforcement aren’t willing to negotiate new laws because they don’t feel they can trust Obama to execute them, Goodlatte said.
The congressman said he does not favor a “special” pathway to citizenship for those who entered the country illegally — a component he opposes in the Senate bill — because they “knowingly” broke the law.
“I do think we should treat those who have intentionally broken the law differently than those who have not,” he said. “It’s unfair to those who have waited in line and followed our immigration rules.”
It might be a matter of semantics on what one considers a path to citizenship.
For example, Goodlatte told USA Today last year that he could see a plan that gives temporary legal status to adult undocumented immigrants and then, after attaining legal permanent residence, they could eventually become citizens through existing routes, such as marrying a U.S. citizen.
“[N]one of those are special ways that have been made available only to people who are here illegally,” he told the national newspaper.
Goodlatte seems open to finding a way for children of undocumented immigrants brought here by their parents to get citizenship. He had been working with former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on a plan called the Kids Act that resembled the Dream Act.
But the details were never released, and Cantor has stepped down as majority leader after losing his GOP primary race last week against challenger Dave Brat, who repeatedly accused the incumbent of supporting amnesty for undocumented immigrants, allowing them to stay in the United States.
The Dream Act was a component of the Senate package and provides a path to citizenship for children brought here illegally before the age of 16 and who have gone on to attend college or serve in the military.
While the Kids Act would offer some reprieve to immigration reform advocates, many have spoken out against it because they do not want to see children separated from their parents.
Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or firstname.lastname@example.org