Homeland Security Department officials defended President Trump’s immigration enforcement and border security priorities at a hearing Tuesday, supporting controversial proposals such as dramatic hiring surges and a border wall over objections and threats from Democratic lawmakers.
Administration officials at a hearing held by the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee could not answer specifics on exactly how long it will take to complete Trump’s proposed hiring of 15,500 DHS employees and construct yet-to-be-determined miles of walls along the U.S.-Mexico border, but said the initial steps spelled out in the White House’s fiscal 2018 budget would be a good start. The Border Patrol requested $100 million to hire 500 new agents, while ICE asked for $185 million to hire 1,000 new law enforcement officers and 605 support staff.
“That’s a very good question,” acting BP Chief Carla Provost said, when asked how long it would take to onboard Trump’s prescribed 5,000 new agents, adding it is “going to take a little bit of time.”
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The agency has already taken some steps to speed up its hiring; BP has implemented a six-month pilot program with a revised polygraph test that marked a “change in format” but “retains all of the critical test topics of the previous exam,” Provost said. The pilot will provide BP with a sample to measure certain data points against the old test. Customs and Border Protection officials on Tuesday repeated their promises that any changes to expedite the hiring process would do nothing to endanger their commitment to hiring only those with “the highest standards of integrity both personally and professionally.”
After the hearing, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., the subcommittee’s ranking member, expressed concern with the pilot program and said her staff is already looking into whether it lowers standards below acceptable levels. Congress has required polygraphs for CBP hires since it passed the 2010 Anti-Border Corruption Act, though Republicans are looking to loosen that mandate for certain qualified applicants.
Both BP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials noted the progress they have already made in meeting Trump's goals; Provost said the Border Patrol has reduced the onboarding time from 469 days as of January 2016 to 300 in March 2017. ICE has hired 357 officers and 114 attorneys in fiscal 2017 and is in the process of making available 20,000 more detention beds.
The Border Patrol in its budget requested $1.6 billion for 74 miles of border wall, including 14 miles of secondary wall in San Diego, and 28 miles of levee wall in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. Provost said her agency is still evaluating where the remaining 32 miles of border wall would go and expects to unveil wall prototypes later this summer.
While members of both parties questioned the wisdom of the wall and pressed for details of how the money could be contracted and spent in a shortened timeframe, Democrats pushed back the hardest on the need for a wall in the first place. The appropriations committee’s ranking member, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said Trump’s budget contained “shocking decreases and eliminations” and she was “stunned” by the proposed increases for ICE and CBP.
“Democrats will not accept a penny of funding for a new deportation force or a border wall,” Lowey said, adding Trump should have taken note when a bipartisan omnibus bill approved last month did not include funding for those efforts. In what amounted to a shutdown threat, Lowey said Trump must abandon those requests if he wants a fully functioning government.
ICE acting Director Thomas Homan offered a passionate and at times blunt defense of his employees and agency, saying officers and agents are “unfairly vilified for simply trying to do their jobs.”
“ICE officers don’t write the laws,” Homan said. “They don’t make up laws on the streets.”
He suggested the media and immigration groups have greatly exaggerated the tactics ICE has pursued, but justified some controversial policies such as making arrests at courthouses. At those locations, he said, his agents can be certain the suspected undocumented immigrants do not have weapons. He explained that agents would never make arrests at “sensitive locations” such as schools or hospitals, but conceded they would arrest a parent a few blocks after they drop off their child at school if they had first ensured someone else would be home to receive the child.
Homan defended arresting someone whose only crimes are traffic violations, saying a driving under the influence conviction represents a “threat to public safety.” He rejected any fault for ICE separating families through deportations, saying undocumented immigrants who have natural-born, U.S. citizen children are fully aware of the potential consequences. All undocumented immigrants, Homan said, should be aware they are now vulnerable to arrest and deportation.
“You should be uncomfortable,” Homan said as a word of warning to that population. “You should look over your shoulder. You should be worried.”