The acting Homeland Security secretary gave lawmakers a glimpse Tuesday into just how many asylum seekers skip their hearings after being released into the United States -- telling a Senate panel that a recent program found 90 percent miss their court dates.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan how many asylum seekers coming across the southern border show up for their hearings.
“It depends on demographic, the court, but we see too many cases where people are not showing up,” he said, telling Graham that DHS recently conducted a pilot program with family units.
“Out of those 7,000 cases, 90 received final orders of removal in absentia, 90 percent,” he said.
“90 percent did not show up?” Graham asked.
“Correct, that is a recent sample from families crossing the border,” McAleenan clarified.
McAleenan’s testimony also painted a grim portrait of a border crisis that shows no signs of easing, with Border Patrol overwhelmed and underfunded. The secretary described authorities as hamstrung by laws that limit how long they can keep migrants in custody.
“Currently due to a single district court order, we cannot obtain effective immigration enforcement results for the families arriving at our border -- they cannot be held for longer than 21 days and do not receive rulings from immigration courts for years,” he said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that it encountered 144,000 migrants at the border in May, a level not seen in decades, describing the situation as a “full-blown emergency.” McAleenan said that 60,000 children have entered into DHS custody in just the last 40 days.
McAleenan told lawmakers they also suffer due to “misaligned” asylum standards, meaning many of those who demonstrate “credible fear” of returning home -- the initial bar for claiming asylum -- are later judged not to have a valid asylum claim.
He also said the restrictions on how long family units can be held mean that a child is now seen as a passport to the U.S. -- a perception he said is based in reality. He testified that only 30 percent of those coming to the border are actually trying to avoid being captured.
“Unless you’re a single adult, it is very unlikely you’ll be repatriated,” he said.
McAleenan urged Congress to act to end those loopholes and to grant requested DHS funding, and suggested that moves to make asylum seekers claim asylum in their home countries or designated third-countries could help solve the crisis.
Graham’s “Secure and Protect Act of 2019,” being discussed at the hearing, would include a provision to establish refugee processing centers in Mexico and Central America, and the senator asked the DHS chief if such an approach would work.
“First of all, it would break the back of the smuggling organizations, they’re profiting from this cycle.” McAleenan said. "It would provide access to asylum in country in a much safer manner than taking this dangerous journey and it would stop this flow immediately.”
“I believe the vast majority [of the migrant flow] would stop,” he said.
Democrats, meanwhile, suggested that the administration bears some of the blame for the situation at the border, with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., pointing to McAleenan's recent appointment as an example of dysfunction at the department.
“In less than two and a half years, there have already been four heads of this department, we have before us an acting secretary who has been on the job for more than two months," he said. "We cannot face this crisis effectively with a revolving door policy in the leadership at the Department of Homeland Security.”
McAleenan’s testimony comes amid continued negotiations between the Trump administration and Mexico on immigration. The U.S. announced on Friday that it had reached a deal with Mexico to drop threatened tariffs on Mexican imports in exchange for Mexico increasing efforts to limit U.S.-bound migration flows from Central America.
An administration source told Fox News Tuesday that a new deal for Mexico becoming a safe third country for asylum seekers was completed, but not yet announced.
Fox News’ John Roberts and Doug McKelway contributed to this report.