WASHINGTON — Less than three weeks into his new job, Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan faced questions from Florida lawmakers this week about the department’s immigration enforcement policies.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat who represents South Florida, decried the conditions of Immigration and Customs Enforcement centers, calling them “inhumane.”
Wasserman Schultz specifically pointed to what she called “horrendous” conditions at an ICE processing center in Miramar, and asked McAleenan, “When is it going to be fixed?” He said he would investigate and respond.
Coming against a backdrop of the Trump administration’s April 2018 “zero tolerance” policy that caused children to be separated from their parents after crossing the southern border – a policy the President Donald Trump later rescinded – McAleenan emphasized that ICE works to ensure due process rights for immigrants in the system and does not want to detain children.
Nearly 40,000 children were processed by Customs and Border Protection in April alone, according to McAleenan, who served as Customs and Border Protection Commissioner before his appointment to acting DHS secretary after Kirstjen Nielsen resigned on April 7.
“We are in the midst of an ongoing security and humanitarian crisis at our Southwest border,” McAleenan told the House Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Homeland Security.
U.S. Republican Rep. John Rutherford, who represents the Jacksonville area, said a change to the Flores Agreement, which stipulates that the federal government cannot detain children under 18 for more than 20 days, is a cause of the crisis. A California judge’s 2015 ruling expanded the Flores Agreement to say that if minors came with any adult — not just parents — they can’t be kept for more than 20 days, Rutherford said.
McAleenan agreed that the change to the Flores Agreement is a “central challenge,” saying that the 20-day timeframe is not adequate to process asylum claims and contact Central American governments for paperwork on the migrant families.
McAleenan’s testimony to Congress came a day after Trump sent McAleenan a memo demanding new regulations to settle all asylum claims in less than 180 days. The memo also asks for regulations to charge asylum seekers a fee and limit their access to work permits while their claims are adjudicated.