Higgins Opening Statement at DHS Efforts Hearing

WASHINGTON –Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation, and Operations ranking member Clay Higgins (R-La.), today delivered the following opening statement at a subcommittee hearing entitled, “Assessing the Adequacy of DHS Efforts to Prevent Child Deaths in Custody.”

Thank you, Madam Chair.

And thank you Chief Hastings and Doctor Eastman for your service at the border and for being here today.

I look forward to hearing in greater detail about the actions DHS has taken to enhance Customs and Border Protection’s ability to handle migrants arriving at our border in deteriorating health and to address preventable deaths in custody.

The crisis that unfolded along our southwest border last year was not a fake emergency, it is not the fault of the men and women of CBP, and it is not the fault of the President of the United States, Donald Trump.

The truth is, this past year we saw record numbers of family units, unaccompanied minors, large groups of 100 migrants or more – 213 to be exact, arriving at our border during the height of flu season and during months of extreme heat.  At the time, the Border Patrol was referring 50 cases per day to medical providers.

The border crisis was the result of legal loopholes, activist judges, and propaganda from criminal killers who smuggle and traffick migrants for profit. 

In 2014, under the Obama Administration, the number of unaccompanied minors encountered at the border was viewed as crisis-level, leading to former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson writing an open letter to Central American parents telling them not to send their children.  It is clear corrective actions were not taken back then.

If that was a crisis, then there are no words for what we experienced at the border during Fiscal Year 2019.  Not only were more than 321,000 minors encountered by CBP, family unit apprehensions were up more than 590 percent in FY19 than FY14. 

Throughout the crisis most CBP facilities were at or over-capacity.  CBP personnel were working overtime and for more than a month – without pay – to process the large groups. Resources were depleting at record time as key personnel at the Department were furloughed. 

Yet CBP law enforcement officers still scraped together money out of their own pockets to buy toys and bring in extra supplies for the migrants in their custody, many of them parents themselves. 

CBP agents and officers, already short-staffed had to refocus their mission from stopping gangs, drugs, murderers, rapists, and even known or suspected terrorists to instead process and care for the hundreds of thousands of people that arrived at our border without the appropriate facilities, resources, and medical support staff to do so.

After a 35-day shutdown that began at the end of 2018, the federal government reopened in January 2019 and the crisis continued.  In light of the growing issues related to the mass influx of migrants, President Trump made an official request to Congress for supplemental funding for the border.  Two months went by before we sent that money to the field.  House Democrats blocked a vote on supplemental assistance more than 15 times.  While House Democrat leaders were tweeting #FakeEmergency, the Chief of the Border Patrol was testifying in front of Congress that without the funding, we may “lose the border.”

The bipartisan Homeland Security Advisory Council released a report on the crisis stating that the delay in passing the supplemental resulted in unaccompanied minors being held in CBP facilities for dangerous lengths of time. 

There are Members on this committee who voted against the emergency supplemental.  A “no” vote meant a vote to keep unaccompanied minors in CBP custody instead of at Department of Health and Human Services facilities suitable for children.  It meant releasing thousands of migrants on the streets of border communities.  Border county Sheriff Napier testified before this committee that during the crisis, “Social service resources that should address local issues of hunger and homelessness are now completely unable to do so.” 

While the men and women of CBP were struggling to keep the lights on at the border, they were the subject of partisan attacks.  One Member even claimed that the tragic deaths of children in custody were intentional, an absurdity that was completely debunked last month as the DHS Inspector General found no misconduct or malfeasance by DHS personnel upon completion of investigations into the heartbreaking deaths of Jakelin and Felipe in December 2018. 

Every life is precious, and even one death in custody is one too many, which is why I was encouraged to learn about the immediate steps CBP took to enhance their ability to diagnose the health of migrants in custody and work with the DHS Chief Medical Officer to make needed long-term improvements.

In December 2018, then-Commissioner Kevin McAleenan ordered secondary medical checks on every child in custody and initiated an internal evaluation of CBP care policies. Since then, CBP established a phased approach to conducting health interviews of all migrants during initial processing and a subsequent full medical assessment of all minors and at-risk adults.

On top of that, CBP now has over 700 medical personnel and contractors stationed across the southwest border to provide medical support to migrants in custody.

Today, I would like to hear from our witnesses about how CBP’s in-custody medical capabilities have improved since fall of 2018, the collaboration process between CBP, the office of the DHS Chief Medical Officer and other relevant stakeholders to bolster CBP’s ability to stop preventable deaths in custody, and their expert opinions on how to prevent another crisis in the future.

Thank you Madam Chair, I yield back.

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