WASHINGTON, D.C. Sept. 18, 2018 – At a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing today, U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris questioned Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Executive Associate Director Matthew Albence on the conditions at family immigration detention facilities, and his previous statement comparing these facilities to “summer camps.” On July 24, 2018, thirteen leading national medical associations, including the American Medical Association, sent a letter to the Senate noting that “Conditions in [Department of Homeland Security] facilities, which include open toilets, constant light exposure, insufficient food and water, no bathing facilities, extremely cold temperatures, and forcing children to sleep on cement floors, are traumatizing for children.” Harris also led 75 members of Congress yesterday in a bicameral letter citing medical experts in opposition to Department of Homeland Security appropriations for expanding family immigration detention.
Harris began, “Mr. Albence, to follow up on questions you’ve been previously asked by my colleagues regarding the position of medical experts, including the American Pediatrics Association and the American Medical Association, you told us in July, I believe, ‘with regard to the family residential centers, I think the best way to describe them is to be more like a summer camp.’ When pressed on this statement, you said that you ‘were very comfortable with the treatment of the immigrants at these centers.’ Do you stand by that statement?”
Albence stood by his previous statement, saying “Absolutely, I do.”
Harris also pressed Albence on the number of cases of family separation that have led to prosecutions or investigations for human trafficking. This follows a line of questioning by Harris from previous hearings and letters extending to at least July 2017.
Harris continued, “I’ve asked repeatedly for information on the number and status of any cases, if they exist, where your agency has referred an adult who accompanied a child to prosecution for trafficking. And I’ve still not received that information. So in your briefing, I’m sure you’re prepared to answer the question because I ask it every time. How many cases has your agency referred to the Department of Justice for prosecution or even investigation of trafficking, since that appears to be the basis for some of your policies, a concern that trafficking exists?”
Albence was unable to provide a number for these cases.
Harris also questioned Acting Deputy Commissioner for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Robert Perez on allegations of limited access to food and water, spoiled food, freezing temperatures, and verbal and physical assault against detained immigrant children, and training for CBP officials pertaining to children, particularly trauma-informed care of young children.
Full transcript of Harris’ questioning below:
Harris: Thank you. And Senator Jones, I actually have a piece of legislation, the Access to Counsel Act, I couldn’t agree with you more. These folks should not be denied access to counsel when they arrive. Mr. Albence, to follow up on questions you’ve been previously asked by my colleagues regarding the position of medical experts, including the American Pediatrics Association and the American Medical Association, you told us in July, I believe, “with regard to the family residential centers, I think the best way to describe them is to be more like a summer camp.” When pressed on this statement, you said that you “were very comfortable with the treatment of the immigrants at these centers.” Do you stand by that statement?
Albence: Absolutely I do.
Harris: You believe they’re like summer camps?
Albence: I believe the standards under which they are kept are very safe, they’re humane —
Harris: Do you have children or do you know children that have attended summer camp? Would you send your children to one of these detention centers?
Albence: That question is not applicable. What I can tell you is that I went to a CoDel just three weeks ago with Senator Boozman and Senator Capito and what we saw there were children receiving actual medical care. We saw children playing in the gymnasium. We saw families sitting at computers in a library that was well stocked. We saw a cafeteria that was spotless with unlimited amounts of food with regard to when they eat. They live in dormitory settings with televisions, X-Boxes and a host of other recreational opportunities.
Harris: But you can understand the concern to suggest that it’s like a summer camp would suggest that a parent would voluntarily send their child to a place like that to have a good time for the summer. You can appreciate — excuse me, I’m not done.
Albence: Well, you’re missing- The point is the parent made the illegal entry, the parent put themselves in this position. They made the illegal entry into the country. That is why they are there.
Harris: You’re here because this is an oversight committee hearing. So I’m asking you specific questions to gauge your ability to actually conduct oversight over the operations of your agency. Moving on, Mr. Perez, I’m sure you’re aware of the great public outrage at seeing images of young children at CBP custody in large metal detention cages. They apparently have been given Mylar blankets and camping pads to sleep on concrete floors for multiple nights. Since the president signed the executive order on June 20th, 2018 regarding family separation, have any families been separated at the border, and if so, how many?
Perez: Thank you, Senator. We are not separating families at the border, at or between the ports of entry. As I mentioned earlier, the temporary detainment facilities that are run at the ports of entry run by the Border Patrol are meant for short-term holding. And the men and women on the front line at CBP go above and beyond not only to impose standards on maintaining the sanitary, the healthy conditions and the care of those in our custody. Family units, adults and children —
Harris: I want to be clear that we’re thinking of the same thing. I’m asking, are you saying, then, that no families have actually been separated since the executive order was signed on June 20th?
Perez: The only instances in where families would be separated is if there is an element of false parentage, a criminal situation with the actual adult and the child, a health concern or a safety concern for that child.
Harris: Do you know how many such cases there have been since June 20th of 2018?
Perez: We could get back to you on that, Senator, but again those would be the only circumstances with the safety and well-being of the child first and foremost on our mind where a family would be separated.
Harris: So other than that, there are no families that have been separated since the signing of that executive order?
Perez: Yes, ma’am.
Harris: And then Mr. Albence, I’ve asked repeatedly for information on the number and status of any cases, if they exist, where your agency has referred an adult who accompanied a child to prosecution for trafficking. And I’ve still not received that information. So in your briefing, I’m sure you’re prepared to answer the question because I ask it every time. How many cases has your agency referred to the Department of Justice for prosecution or even investigation of trafficking, since that appears to be the basis for some of your policies, a concern that trafficking exists?
Albence: So thus far, Homeland Security investigations within I.C.E. has initiated 778 human trafficking investigations, has made 1,410 human trafficking criminal arrests, has obtained 179 indictments and 425 convictions.
Harris: Since what date is that?
Albence: That’s this fiscal year up through August 31st.
Harris: And are those cases where the concern was that an adult who was accompanying a child, because that’s the specific question, adults who are accompanying a child who arrive at our border, how many of those cases have been referred for trafficking prosecution?
Albence: We would have to get back with you on that. We would have to look in our records to see.
Harris: When can I expect to get that information?
Albence: I would say it wouldn’t take more than a couple weeks.
Harris: Ok, so by the end of next week? Is that doable?
Albence: I’ll go back and talk…I’m not quite familiar with the ICM and how searchable it is, but once I find out we’ll certainly let you know.
Harris: Okay, I appreciate that. And also, and I don’t know if it’s either Mr. Albence or Mr. Perez, whichever, if both of you can answer this question, but I’m assuming that you’re both aware that there are affidavits that have been filed this summer alleging that children faced limited access to food and water and experienced spoiled food, freezing temperatures and verbal and physical assault in CBP custody. Mr. Perez, are you aware of that?
Perez: Thank you, Senator. We mentioned earlier our Office of Professional Responsibility alongside DHS’s Office of Inspector General have been investigating any and all of those allegations of misconduct. We take those investigations and those allegations very seriously as we do with any other allegation of misconduct by either contractors or employees. Nevertheless, very confident that given the amount of intake in allegations and cases that there are versus the nearly, again, almost half million inadmissibles that we are detaining and encountering, that the instances with which this is occurring are relatively modest and that again our front line agents and officers are doing the best they can to take care of these folks over and above.
Harris: Thank you, just a few seconds left. I’ve asked on both April 22nd and May 15th DHS officials about CBP employee training as it pertains to the handling of children as well as training that pertains to the handling of the youngest children in your detention facilities, and I have not received a response. Can one of you tell me where that information is, or if it exists at all, and that is what you’re doing to train your employees who are having direct contact with children and their parents on how they should be approached in the least traumatic manner?
Perez: Absolutely, Senator, we can get back to you. I will make sure that we do respond to you with the actual laydown of the training we provide, but I can tell you very briefly that our agents and officers annually are required to take training both with respect to potential human trafficking concerns, exploitation of children and or the care and custody of children in our temporary detention facilities through our transportation escort and detention standards.
Harris: Thank you and again, I’ll note I asked for this information on April 26th and again on May 15th, so I would appreciate your swift response. Thank you.