The Senate Judiciary Committee hosted a hearing Wednesday morning titled “Oversight of the Department of Homeland Security" with DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano as the witness.
The Senators in attendance were Patrick Leahy (Committee Chairman) of Vermont, Chuck Grassley (Committee Ranking Member) of Iowa, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Jon Kyl of Arizona, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken of Minnesota, John Cornyn of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Chuck Schumer of New York, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and Freshman Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Chris Coons of Delaware.
Similar to the oversight hearing held in the House Homeland Security Committee last week, Secretary Napolitano was invited by the Senate to justify department expenses and provide a progress report for administrative programs under her jurisdiction.
While a number of Senators attended the hearing, there were a few noticeable absences such as Dianne Feinstein, Dick Durbin, Mike Lee, Tom Coburn, and Orrin Hatch who were likely attending the joint session of Congress in the House Chamber where the Prime Minister of Australia was speaking. Unfortunately, timing can be tough considering the Secretary's busy schedule and the current budget/appropriation discussions between the House and Senate.
While this hearing was not designed to specifically discuss immigration and border security, the issue was a prominent topic for numerous Senators. Among non-immigration questions, Senators asked about TSA scanners, FEMA allocations, terrorist labeling, the impact of budget cuts and a possible government shutdown, port security, and cyber security. However, unlike the House hearing, Secretary Napolitano understood the dynamic of her Democrat-majority audience and didn't open with such a defensive assessment of her accomplishments.
Indeed, Chairman Leahy opened the hearing with a compliment for the Secretary. He commended her for delaying the implementation of the REAL ID Act, which mandates federal standards for state driver's licenses including citizenship verification. The Chairman said,
I think the delay is a good thing.
On the contrary, the delay of REAL ID takes away the incentive for non-compliant states to update their driver's licenses. It's amazing how many doors are opened and benefits made available with just a drivers license number. A driver's license in the wrong hands provides a sanctuary for criminals including illegal aliens and terrorists. It gives them a legal identity and provides them an opportunity for perks normally reserved for citizens such as voting (anyone remember President Clinton's Motor Voter Program), access to financial institutions, and benefits such as housing assistance, medical care, and food stamps. In other words, updating and securing our driver's licenses is a worthy expense and a welcome alternative to some sort of national ID card.
Ranking Member Grassley's opening statement discussed the failed coordination between agencies and he even boldly said that the lack of justice on the border has enabled criminals. He also mentioned his concern about the DHS amnesty memos (memos leaked from DHS that outline an administrative amnesty), the delay of REAL ID, and the Department's definition of “operational control" of the border.
Similar to her House testimony, Secretary Napolitano opened her statement by claiming that the Administration has embarked on an “unprecedented effort to bring focus and intensity to the border." She went on to cite increased efforts to screen for guns being smuggled southbound and “unprecedented cooperation with Mexico."
. . . fewer people are trying to cross our border illegally . . . As we have strengthened the border, we have stepped up efforts in the interior of the country . . . We have removed more illegal aliens over a 2 year period than any other time.
However, like what was discussed in previous hearings, there really is no way of verifying this assertion; a numerator without a denominator. Furthermore, if the interior is so secure, why does the Department place warning signs miles north of the border?
Secretary Napolitano and her officials continue to promote the idea of increased border security under President Obama's leadership, yet it's hard to find someone who actually believes her assessment, probably because most people know better. Nevertheless, she continues with the same talking points while Members of Congress continue to dismantle her arguments. It's like a broken record.
After her testimony, Chairman Leahy went back on the offense against REAL ID saying it was a waste of taxpayer money. The Secretary answered by saying “it's an unfunded mandate" and that Congress should take a fresh look at the PASS ID Act, which would basically nullify the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission regarding secure divers licenses.
Herb Kohl of Wisconsin's questions concerned speeding up the process of H-1B “white collar" visas and the dairy industry's need for H-2A seasonal labor. The Secretary responded by saying that visa processing has increased in efficiency and that the goal is to provide secure screening balanced with a quick turnaround time. She then said the dairy problem (dairy is not a seasonal industry) would need a statutory fix to provide year long access to H-2A.
Senator Al Franken used most of his question time to express concern for the children of illegal aliens by saying,
I'm worried about making sure our nation's children don't suffer needlessly.
He said 100,000 parents have been deported and that the United States needs a policy to keep families together. My biggest question to the Senator is why the children are not being returned with their parents. Family unity under such circumstances is a responsibility of the individual families, not the government. If the children are citizens, they can always return when they are adults or old enough to travel by themselves.
Senator Cornyn, on the other hand, went back to the GAO report and specifically focused on the OTM (Other than Mexicans) problem. Apparently, 140 different countries have illegal aliens in the United States and at least 4 of them are state sponsors of terrorism. The Secretary returned to her talking points defending the Administration's definition of “operational control" by saying it is a “term of art by the border patrol." She said,
We are on the right path. We are not done. We will continue to work the border and work it hard.
Cornyn then asked if she had a financial estimate of what it would take to secure the border. The Secretary returned to her talking points and when Cornyn posed the question to her again she said, “that is not a simple question."
Cornyn then asked, “yes or no, do you have the resources to secure the border." She said it needs to be a sustained effort instead of a solid end number. Cornyn then said the public would not let us (the Senate) move forward with reform until they believe border efforts are sincere.
After Senator Blumenthal's first question about the impact of a government shutdown, he asked an interesting question about providing greater authority for local and state police to enforce immigration laws. Secretary Napolitano responded by saying that local and state enforcement is not desirable because immigration is a federal responsibility.
Lindsey Graham, whose position on immigration is always in question, asked a series of irrelevant softball questions allowing the Secretary to answer with her typical talking points about how secure the border is under President Obama. Unlike some of the other Senators, Graham only used one round of questioning and he wasted it trying to brown nose with the Administration, not a good sign.
It is very disappointing that a Senator from a conservative state like South Carolina would waste his questions that way. He missed a real opportunity to stand up for his constituents against an Administration that his state rejected in two consecutive elections. I can't believe this is the seat that used to be held by Strom Thurmond.
While Chuck Schumer focused on the northern border and House spending reductions, Chris Coons of Delaware used his time to plug H-1B and EB5 visas. I actually thought Coons might be a decent Senator, but that is not a good sign.
During the second round, Chuck Grassley went back to the topic of amnesty memos. The Secretary mentioned that the memos were never intended to be made public, that the DHS is not planning to give “deferred action" to large groups of people, and that the President is very much in favor of immigration reform. After further questions from Grassley, she eventually admitted that 900 people were given deferred action last year (not to be confused with parole).
When Senator Kyl spoke in the second round, he again asked about “operational control." He was clearly starting to get under the Secretary's skin when she said “sealing the border is impossible."
Kyl then questioned support for Operation Streamline, a Department of Justice program that incarcerates aliens for multiple illegal crossings. Napolitano said the DHS is looking at consequences that depend less on the Justice Department and are more cost effective.
The hearing ended after questions posed by Senator Whitehouse on the topic of cyber security.
Overall, the tone of this hearing was different than the House hearing last week, yet the questions and answers remained pretty much the same. As usual, there is a diversity of views, opinions, and topics. While some Senators were willing to ask tough questions, others used their time to plug their positions or win favor with the Administration.
Even though the Department of Homeland Security is likely to sustain some uncomfortable spending reductions, just as families have to cut back on their expenses, there is no excuse for not providing a sustained effort to secure the border. It's a big problem and it needs a big response, not small arguments about policy and political posturing.
JONATHAN OSBORNE is the Chief Legislative Analyst for NumbersUSA