Sessions letter from last year shows new DHS orders have long history
WASHINGTON — The harsh new draft orders signed last week by Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly that would considerably expand the number of immigrants who could be detained and deported were largely endorsed by then-Sen. Jeff Sessions months before he took office as attorney general.
In a July 6 letter to Obama administration officials, Sessions — a Republican senator from Alabama — prodded then DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch about two of the most controversial issues raised in the Kelly memos.
He pressed the administration to explain why unaccompanied minors were not “humanely sent back home” after being reunited with their parents living illegally in the United States. He also wanted to know why the children’s parents had not been prosecuted for aiding and abetting human traffickers by paying them to bring their children illegally into the United States.
“Strong leadership and a commitment to the faithful execution of the laws on the books would convey a clear message to the world that if you come to the United States illegally, you will be removed,” Sessions wrote. “Rather than improve the current situation, administration policies have only made the situation worse.”
The letter, co-written with Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., shows that Kelly’s drafts, obtained by McClatchy, are not out of the mainstream of Trump administration thinking in spite of the White House insistence that the orders have not yet been approved.
In addition to Sessions being President Donald Trump’s attorney general, former Sessions aide Stephen Miller is now a top adviser to Trump and is believed to have been behind Trump’s controversial immigration executive orders.
A senior White House official said Sunday night that the administration took issue with some of the language in Kelly’s memos and is working with Homeland Security officials to have them revised.
The White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue, said that while the DHS memos were nearly complete, the White House lawyers were still reviewing them to ensure that they reflected the priorities of Trump’s executive order on enforcing immigration laws inside the United States.
“We’re still working with DHS proper on finalizing what the policy will be,” the official said.
The official said he did not respond to a question about what role Sessions had, if any, in drafting the DHS memos.
The proposed orders have raised alarms among immigrant rights group while earning praise from supporters of tougher immigration enforcement.
“In other words, unlike under Obama, being an illegal alien is a deportable offense again,” Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said via Twitter.
The vast majority of the children _ and their relatives _ who would be affected come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, three of the most violent countries in the world. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said that women and children from Central America would continue to flee their countries because of the violence, which is fueled by sophisticated transnational gangs.
Both family apprehensions and detentions of unaccompanied children from the region have shown dramatic increases over last year’s totals _ with family detentions nearly doubling and the number children traveling without parents increasing 52 percent.
The number of Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States has grown nearly eightfold in the last six years. Mexico, Canada, Nicaragua and Costa Rica also have seen an increase in Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans seeking refugee status, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Under Kelly’s proposed orders, which were contained in two memorandums dated Friday and written for distribution to agency heads, hundreds of thousands more immigrants in the United States illegally could be subject to what’s known as expedited removal proceedings to quickly get them out of the country. The orders would change from 14 days to two years the time an immigrant has been in the country to be subject to such action.
Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said the memos would undo decades of policies that emphasized humanitarian assistance to immigrants facing danger in their home countries.
“It is an extremist, expensive and radical shift in immigration policy which confirms what we’ve feared: the infrastructure for the Trump mass deportation force is now in place and will wreak humanitarian and economic havoc in communities across the country,” Hincapie said.
The White House official said the measures being proposed in the Kelly memo are ones that immigration agents have been asking to have for years _ and which have strong support among Republicans in Congress.
“Ultimately the goal is to stop the flow because it puts these kids in very dangerous situations. It is a humanitarian concern above all else,” the official said.
Two of the most controversial aspects of the memos were raised by Sessions in his July letter.
As do Kelly’s memorandums, Sessions, who opposed Obama administration plans to house some unaccompanied children at a naval air station in Florida 30 miles from the Alabama state line, questioned why children who’d been reunited with a parent or other family member in the United States were still protected as “unaccompanied minors.” He also asked why their parents had not been prosecuted when they had paid human traffickers to bring their children across the border.
In his letter, Sessions cited findings from the Government Accountability Office showing that 60 percent of unaccompanied minors were released from the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement to a parent between Jan. 7, 2014, and April 17, 2015.
“However, this Administration has failed to take any enforcement action against these family members _ most of whom had some role to play in the juveniles’ illegal entry into the United States. And many of those family members are present in the United States unlawfully,” the letter said. “The Administration continues to prevent the use of any of a number of commonsense tools to protect the integrity of our immigration system and the sovereignty of this nation.”
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