TUCSON — Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is pushing for the implementation of a pilot program along the U.S.-Mexico border that aims to more quickly screen and remove migrant families without valid legal claims for asylum in the United States.
Sinema, D-Ariz., joined a bipartisan group with eight other senators who sent a letter Wednesday to acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan describing their proposed program, dubbed “Operation Safe Return.”
They’ll have the chance to make their case during a meeting with McAleenan in the coming weeks.
The program would allow the Department of Homeland Security to deport certain migrants within 15 days, according to the letter, and would help alleviate overcrowding at border facilities, Sinema said.
“This pilot program would apply to families who aren’t claiming ‘credible fear,’ which of course is the first threshold in seeking asylum,” Sinema told The Arizona Republic. “If someone says ‘I left my country because I can’t make a living,’ (or) ‘it’s hard to take care of my family’ — that’s what we call an economic migrant.”
Sinema is one of the main architects behind the proposed program, along with Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
Sinema said she came up with the idea for the pilot program in response to a meeting with White House and Trump administration officials who she said were focused on changing asylum laws and challenging court rulings like the Flores Settlement Agreement, dictating how the government treats certain migrants.
“I just felt those weren’t the right answers,” Sinema added. “We wanted to solve the problem. We wanted to protect the asylum process for valid applicants … and we want to respect the Flores decision.”
But the idea for the pilot program has raised concerns from migrant advocates who worry that speeding up the process could lead to cases of valid claims being wrongfully denied and migrant families returned to dangerous situations.
Ruben Reyes, a board member with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said he worried about a botched implementation similar to last year’s family separations, which sparked a national furor.
“We still have children who are missing in the system,” Reyes said. “So we can’t take this letter outside of the context of what’s happened for the year and a half.”
Migrant families who ‘do not have a valid legal claim’ would be quickly removed
The letter to McAleenan provides additional details about Operation Safe Return.
Besides Sinema and Johnson, the letter was signed by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Joe Manchin D-W.Va.; James Lankford, R-Okla.; Doug Jones, D-Ala.; Michael Enzi, R-Wyo.; John Barrasso, R-Wyo.; and John Cornyn, R-Texas.
“We have worked with your agencies to develop a streamlined process to rapidly, accurately, and fairly determine those family units that do not have a valid legal claim and safely return those individuals to their home countries.” the senators’ letter says. “The process would use existing authorities, but surge necessary resources to a limited, particular location on the southern border.”
The pilot program establishes a timeline to screen migrant families that U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended in between the ports of entry “within a limited area” of the U.S.-Mexico border. It doesn’t change the policies in place to administer credible-fear interviews.
So far this year, agents have apprehended more than 390,000 migrants traveling as families along the southwestern U.S. border, according to Customs and Border Protection. Family apprehensions dropped in June compared to May, but the numbers are still at some of the highest levels since the U.S. government began to track that data.
Under “Safe Return,” Border Patrol agents would have one to three days to conduct “detailed, fair and accurate interviews” with migrant families to determine if families express a fear of return. If they don’t, they would be immediately deported to their home countries.
For families who claim fear, asylum officers working for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Officers would have nine days after their apprehension to conduct a credible-fear interview. During the next six days, Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, which runs immigration and asylum courts, would make a determination about the case.
Families who pass the credible-fear screening would have the chance to claim asylum and be released under alternative-to-detention programs.
“Within approximately 15 days after being encountered, the Department of Homeland Security should remove family units whose negative credible fear determinations are affirmed by the immigration judge,” the letter says.
Sinema, Johnson to meet with Homeland Security officials to discuss program
Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection officials declined to comment on “Operation Safe Return, but Sinema said she and Johnson will meet with McAleenan and Homeland Security officials as early as next week to discuss the details of possible implementation of the program.
“They’ve indicated a strong interest in this program for several reasons,” she said.
Those include alleviating overcrowding at border facilities, providing greater attention to valid asylum claims, and the prompt removal for everyone else, Sinema added.
The pilot program also would require greater congressional oversight. McAleenan would have to report every week to the Senate Homeland Security Committee about the program’s progress and metrics to measure its success.
Reyes, with AILA, said the ongoing situation at the border has proven how difficult it is for Congress to do that.
“This administration has been, and I think without debate, the least-transparent and the most-reluctant to allow themselves to be overseen by Congress,” he said.
The letter doesn’t specify a location for the proposed pilot program. Sinema said Arizona could be a good option given its history piloting successful programs at the border, such as Unified Cargo Processing.