By Suzanne Gamboa and Gwen Aviles
Democrats poised to hold committee positions in Congress that will give them jurisdiction over agencies in charge of keeping immigrants in custody, especially children, said Thursday they plan to step up scrutiny of immigration detention next year.
Democrats won control of the House in November’s elections, which means the party’s House members shift into chairmanships of committees and subcommittees in the next Congress that starts in January.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a California Democrat who is likely to chair the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on Homeland Security. Roybal-Allard is now the subcommittee’s ranking member, the spot reserved for the most senior member of the minority party.
On her list of things to get done are providing better access to legal counsel, using alternatives to detention particularly for families, ensuring that immigration facilities are more regularly inspected and more funding for the hiring of social workers to work with unaccompanied child migrants, she said.
“Mainly it’s going to be oversight, pushing for fairness and justice for these immigrants,” Roybal-Allard said.
Although illegal immigration has dropped significantly in recent years, the Trump administration has stepped up immigration detention, including holding parents and children from Central America who have been more likely to cross the border and surrender to law enforcement authorities and request asylum.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut is likely to become the chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. She is the ranking Democrat on that subcommittee right now. She pledged to “get accountability for the taxpayers’ dollars” being spent to hold immigrant children in tents in Tornillo, Texas.
She criticized a White House request for another $190 million for the unaccompanied children program to be added to the spending bill that Congress is negotiating, which she said would prolong the detention of immigrant children that is already averaging about 70 days.
“I will do everything I can to prevent them from getting one more nickel,” DeLauro said.
Congress is trying to finish up the spending package this year and there is debate over how much will be spent on immigration enforcement, including immigration detention and the border President Donald Trump’s had promised to build at Mexico’s expense.
Immigration groups and other advocates are pressuring Democrats to prevent increases in spending on immigration enforcement and any additional spending on the wall.
The American Immigration Council, a legal group that advocates for immigrants, released a study this week that reported nearly two-thirds of people held in immigration detention in recent years were locked away in privately-operated jails in remote areas far from their communities and legal support.
The analysis was based on records for the 355,729 people held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in 2015. According to the council’s report, the federal government also regularly moved people from between its 638 facilities in its network.
The report titled “The Landscape of Immigration Detention in the United States.” was released on Wednesday, intended to have some impact on the negotiations on Capitol Hill.
“As Congress weighs the administration’s repeated requests for a massive immigration enforcement budget, these findings should be central to policy discussions about detention funding, oversight, and reform,” said Kathryn Shepherd, American Immigration Council national advocacy counsel.
According to the American Immigration Council’s analysis, 67 percent of the 355,729 detained in 2015 were held in privately-owned facilities and 64 percent were in remote facilities. The average detention length among the more than 260,000 adults released from immigration detention centers in 2015 was 38 days.
The study shows that the majority of adults who were detained were transferred at least once during their detention, which led to confinement in multiple locations.
The report’s researchers found that 48 percent of detainees were confined at least once in a facility that was located more than 60 miles away from the nearest nonprofit immigration defense attorney that specialized in defending immigrants threatened with removal.
In addition, 26 percent was held at a facility 90 miles away and 22 percent was 120 miles from that legal help, according to the report by Dr. Emily Ryo, an associate professor at University of Southern California Gould School of Law and Ian Peacock, a University of California, Los Angeles sociology graduate student.
“Providing access to legal counsel is going to be one of my priorities,” Roybal-Allard said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure easy access is available and they will be able to get legal counsel.” Immigrants held in detention do not have a right to an attorney under U.S. law.
The Migration Policy Institute, in a report released in May, reported that three-quarters of people in immigration detention in 2016 were held in facilities operated by private companies.
According to the institute, the Department of Homeland Security spent $126 per day, per each detained person in the fiscal year 2017 and costs soared to $2 billion annually. That has also led to increased profits for the private companies that run the facilities.
The American Immigration Council analysis showed that privately-owned facilities outside of major urban areas had higher numbers of grievances.
In 2015, nearly 50,000 detention-related grievances from detainees and the public were made through ICE’s Detention Reporting and Information Line (a phone complaint and question line), the report said. Access to legal counsel and basic immigration case information were the most common type of grievances.
“The use of immigration detention in the United States has increased significantly in recent decades, while allegations of civil and human rights violations in detention facilities have persisted,” said Ryo. The issues raised in the report “could be exacerbated if the government expands detention use further,” she said.
Author and Stanford history professor Ana Raquel Minian wrote recently in an opinion article published by the New York Times that immigration detention has a short-lived history in the country. The shift away to greater detention of immigrants after a falloff in the 1950s came with the arrival of Cubans and Haitians in the 1980s and later, influence from for-profit companies drive that helped build a massive detention infrastructure, Minian wrote.
Roybal-Allard, De Lauro and Rep.-elect Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said in the conference call Thursday they would also push increased training of detention guards and personnel.
“Most of these contract facilities are run by folks who are used to dealing with hardened criminals and have no sensitivity or understanding with regards to the fact that they are dealing with a different population,” Roybal-Allard said.
Escobar called for more accountability and transparency in the contracts that are awarded to private companies.
“What we’ve seen with these huge no-bid contracts is they are ongoing,” Escobar said. “They keep getting renewed and … the amount of money and taxpayer dollars going to this is probably significantly more than we even know.”
Hundreds of migrants detained in Texas to be flown to San Diego
By Phil Helsel
Hundreds of detainees from immigration agency facilities in Texas and elsewhere will be flown to San Diego for processing, it was reported Friday, as authorities struggle to handle an influx of migrants entering the country.
Three flights a week carrying about 130 people a flight would arrive in the San Diego area from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Customs and Border Protection Interim Chief Patrol Agent Douglas Harrison said Friday, according to NBC San Diego
Those people would come from facilities overwhelmed by a high number of immigrants, including those who are claiming asylum, but officials in Southern California are not expecting any unaccompanied minors, the station reported.
The federal border protection agency is calling the surge in migrants fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — a region sometimes called the Northern Triangle — a humanitarian and border security crisis.
“We’re in the middle of a humanitarian crisis and the numbers in Texas are staggering so the BP is helping out in those sectors to more efficiently process these folks,” an unidentified CBP official said, referring to the Border Patrol, according to Reuters.
The announcement comes as two Department of Homeland Security officials said the DHS is laying the groundwork for a plan to transport recent border crossers by plane to cities around the country and release them after processing.
Florida officials expressed anger on Thursday after learning the Trump administration was planning to release hundreds of migrants each month in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Beyond South Florida, DHS is considering other areas around the country where immigrants can be released, the two officials told NBC News.
It was not immediately clear if the flights from Texas to San Diego were part of that DHS plan.
Also on Friday, Customs and Border Protection warned people against trying to cross the Rio Grande River into the United States, calling crossings with small children an “alarming trend” that has resulted in deaths.
The agency said in a statement that since Oct. 1, 2018, there have been 10 water-related deaths in the Del Rio Sector, which covers parts of the Texas border.
On May 1, three people drowned, including a 10-month-old boy and a 7-year-old boy, when a raft carrying nine people capsized, sending everyone aboard into the water, CBP said.
Border Patrol agents rescued a man who was trying to cross the river with a 3-month-old boy strapped to his chest Thursday, the CBP said. The baby suffered water in his lungs and nearly drowned, the agency said.
“It’s disturbing what is taking place on our borders and witnessed by our Border Patrol agents every day,” Del Rio Sector Acting Chief Patrol Agent Randy Davis said in the CBP statement.
“This trend is not without tragic consequences,” he said. “Border Patrol agents are rescuing people, but have also had the grim task of recovering deceased bodies including children as young as 10-months-old from the Rio Grande River.”
The Trump administration has already built its case for Iran war
By Jonathan Allen
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump may not need Congress to go to war with Iran.
That’s the case his lieutenants have been quietly building as tensions between the two nations have escalated.
The key elements involve drawing links between al Qaeda and Iran and casting Iran as a terrorist threat to the U.S. — which is exactly what administration officials have been doing in recent weeks.
That could give Trump the justification he needs to fight Iran under the still-in-effect 2001 use-of-force resolution without congressional approval.
That prospect is unsettling to most Democrats, and even some Republicans, in part because Iran didn’t attack the U.S. on 9/11, in part because there is a reluctance to engage U.S. forces in another theater of war, and in part because many lawmakers believe Congress has given too much of its war-making authority to the president over the years.
With Congress unlikely to grant him new authority to strike Iran under the current circumstances, and amid a campaign of “maximum pressure” against the regime in Tehran that has escalated tension between the two countries, Trump administration officials have sent strong signals that they will be ready to make an end run around lawmakers, using the 2001 authorization for the use of military force — or “AUMF” in Washington-speak — if necessary.
That law gave the president the power to use force against “nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”
Earlier this month, the U.S. deployed an aircraft carrier strike group to the region. Three U.S. officials told NBC that a surge in American forces in the region was a response in part to intelligence-gathering suggesting that the Iranian regime had given proxies a green light to attack U.S. personnel and assets in the region.
And in recent weeks, the Trump administration has accused Iran of assisting al Qaeda, designated an arm of the Iranian military as a foreign terrorist organization and accused Iran of being linked to a terrorist threat against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.
National Security Council officials declined to speak on the record with NBC about whether such incidents would satisfy the legal threshold necessary for the president to determine he had the authority to use force against Iran.
But former government lawyers familiar with the 2001 law and its applications say it’s obvious from those moves what the Trump administration is trying to do.
“The whole thing is building up to the notion that they don’t have to go to Congress for approval,” Yale University law professor Harold Koh, who served as the State Department’s top lawyer under Secretary Hillary Clinton, said in a telephone interview with NBC News.
Yet Koh said an attempt to shoehorn Iran into the 2001 AUMF is absurd and shouldn’t pass legal muster.
“The theory of war powers has to be that Congress doesn’t just sign off once,” he said. “The suggestion now that Iran attacked us on 9/11 is ridiculous.”
The original law essentially creates a two-part test for the president to make a determination that force is warranted: a country, group or person has aided al Qaeda and force is necessary to prevent a terrorist attack against the U.S. from that entity.
Under questioning from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a critic of the executive branch’s expansive view of its war powers under both Presidents Barack Obama and Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month that he would “leave it to the lawyers” to sort out whether Trump had the authority to go to war with Iran absent a new authorization from Congress.
But he also forwarded an argument that he has been making since the early days of the administration that is tantamount to a case that the first part of the test has been met.
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“The factual question with respect to Iran’s connections to Al-Qaeda is very real. They have hosted al Qaeda, they have permitted al Qaeda to transit their country,” he said at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “There is no doubt there is a connection between the Islamic Republic of Iran and al Qaeda. Period, full stop.”
There has been intense debate in recent years about the extent to which the remnants of al Qaeda have found assistance in Iran, with Iran hawks taking the position that the ties are deep and significant and others contending that attempts to link the Shia regime to terrorism carried out by Sunni groups are wrong or disingenuous.
But the deployment of more forces to the region to counter the threat of attacks on American personnel and assets, as well as the partial evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, could be seen as satisfying the second part of the use-of-force test. That is, the idea that force is appropriate to prevent a terrorist threat from a country that has given assistance to al Qaeda.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last week that she appreciates that Trump has generally been reluctant to go to war and cast his advisers as the drivers of the current escalation of tensions. She said the president doesn’t currently have the power to go to war with Iran.
“The responsibility in the Congress is for Congress to declare war,” she said. “So I hope the president’s advisors recognize that they have no authorization to go forward in any way. They cannot call the authorization, AUMF, the authorization for the use of military force, that was passed in 2001, as any authorization to go forward in the Middle East now,”
Trump himself has left the door open.
Asked about the possibility this week, he said, “I hope not.”
But there’s little question that his administration is getting ready — and getting ready to go it alone.
Joe Biden at rally casts himself as candidate who could unify the nation
By Mike Memoli
PHILADELPHIA — Joe Biden framed the 2020 presidential election as a choice between unity over division and cast himself as the candidate uniquely positioned to close the nation’s political divide, promising Saturday “a different path.”
Speaking in the heart of Philadelphia at a rally billed as a campaign kickoff, the former vice president doubled down on his view of the Democratic Party and the broader political climate in which more extreme voices often carry the day.
And his remarks once again appeared designed to look beyond the very crowded primary field toward the general election fight to come against President Trump, even as he acknowledged some skepticism in his party about his approach.
“I know some of the really smart folks said that Democrats do not want to hear about unity. The Democrats are so angry, the angrier that candidate could be the better chance to win the nomination. I do not believe it,” Biden said. “I believe Democrats want to unify this nation.”
America already has someone who would “add more divisions,” or “demonize” his opponents in Trump, Biden added.
“I am running to offer our country — Democrats, Republicans and Independents — a different path, not back to a past that never was but to a future that fulfills our true potential,” he said.
In more than three weeks as an announced candidate, the former two-term vice president to Barack Obama has seen his lead in national polls grow even as the field has as well. His perceived strength as a Democrat who can go toe-to-toe with Trump in the general election, but on substance and politically with an appeal in bellwether states like Pennsylvania, is a major reason why.
As he has for weeks, Biden warned in stark terms about the threat Trump’s presidency poses to America’s standing in the world and to our democratic system itself. On Saturday, he also took on Trump over what could be a critical 2020 issue: the economy.
“I know President Trump likes to take credit for the economy,” he said. “But just look at the facts — not the alternative facts. President Trump inherited an economy from an Obama/Biden administration that was given to him — just like he inherited everything else in his life. And just like everything else he has been given in life, he is in the process of squandering that as well.”
Even as he trained his sights on Trump, Biden addressed head-on the questions that will dominate the Democratic primary. He acknowledged that Democrats doubt his view that he could work with Republicans in Washington if elected.
“I’m going to say some thing outrageous: I know how to make government work. Not because I have talked or tweeted about it, but because I have done it,” he said, citing his work to convince swing Republican votes to back the 2009 Recovery Act as one example. “I helped make government work. I can do that again.”
But he also said he understands that there are times Democrats would have to fight on their own to advance their goals.
“I know how to go toe to toe with the GOP, but it does not have to be, and it cannot be on every single issue,” he said.
Saturday’s rally marked the end of a three-week campaign rollout for the former vice president in which he laid out the rationale for his candidacy and addressed voters in each of the four early-voting states, promising to work as hard as anyone to earn their support.
In the month ahead, though, Biden will turn toward readying himself for the next major test of his frontrunner status: the first primary debate. His public schedule is expected to be more limited, with several major policy speeches possible in addition to fundraising swings through New York, Texas and Florida.
On Saturday, Biden outlined policy priorities for his administration in broad strokes, calling for a clean energy revolution, a public option on health care, and protecting a woman’s right to an abortion. But achieving those goals started with one key step, he reminded the audience.
“The single most important thing we have to accomplish to get this done … is defeat Donald Trump,” he said.
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