Last Thursday, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Ken Cuccinelli visited Austin to discuss the border crisis alongside Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX-25) at an event hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF).
The goal of the forum was to “discuss the path forward to secure the border and reform our laws from the perspective of Congress and the Administration.”
Director Cuccinelli opened the event by emphasizing the need for action from those in Congress if the crisis at the southern border is to be effectively ended.
He also praised President Trump and the administration for recent immigration policy initiatives, like the Migration Protection Protocols, the interim federal rule that limits asylum-seeking, the asylum cooperation agreement signed with Guatemala, and most recently, the replacement of the Flores Settlement Agreement.
While many topics were discussed, the questions from the audience were mostly focused on President Trump’s new rule issued last week, which will effectively replace the Flores Settlement Agreement as it currently stands.
Instituted in 1997 following a court decision against then-Attorney General Janet Reno, the Flores agreement requires unaccompanied children to be held in detention for 20 days.
The policy was further expanded under the Obama administration in 2015 to also include families, as opposed to just children.
According to Director Cuccinelli, when immigration statistics and graphs are analyzed during this time frame, a sharp increase in the number of immigrants can be seen.
Cuccinelli said of this matter, “suddenly children were seen as the ticket in.”
Not only did the number of immigrants increase, but the data also indicates a substantial increase in human trafficking and child “recycling” as the number of children being exploited as a means of gaining entry into the U.S. grew.
The modified policy unveiled last week removes the 20-day limitation on detention for families in a bid to effectively end the current practice of “catch and release.”
However, in doing so, families can now be held indefinitely until their court dates are scheduled instead of being released into the U.S. while their cases are pending.
Additionally, the new policy does not make exceptions for children.
According to Cuccinelli, U.S. law states that apprehended illegal immigrants are to be held until their court hearings. He expanded further by saying there is “no law that says catch and release is supposed to happen.”
While Cuccinelli did acknowledge that a new challenge moving forward will be facility space to manage the number of people, the new regulation promulgated last week also authorized federal licensing of immigration facilities.
In the past, this has been a challenge for courts as facilities are subject to state licensing regulations in the absence of a federal standard.
Texas, specifically, maintains a regulatory authority but no official consensus exists about how facilities and detention centers are to be maintained, according to Director Cuccinelli.
The new policy, however, sets a federal licensing standard by which all states will be held accountable.
Set to take effect 60 days after publication, Cuccinelli told press at TPPF that the new rule received more than 133,000 public comments, making it the second-highest publicly commented rule in the history of the Department of Homeland Security.
President Trump’s public charge rule – a policy that increases the government’s authority to deny green cards and permanent residency to legal immigrants deemed likely to rely on federally-funded welfare programs – currently holds the highest number of public comments with more than 266,000.
Since taking office in 2017, the Trump administration has also issued the Migration Protection Protocols, which allows individuals to be lawfully returned to Mexico while their immigration cases are adjudicated, and an interim final rule that requires those seeking asylum at the southern border to have first sought it and been rejected at a country through which they passed while en route to the U.S.
The new policy also comes in the wake of the signing of a “safe-third country” agreement – officially known as an asylum cooperation agreement – with Guatemala.
Although Guatemala and Canada are currently the only countries with which the U.S. holds asylum cooperation agreements, Director Cuccinelli expressed hope for similar agreements and foreign policy arrangements with other countries in the future.
Regarding the border crisis at it relates to Texas, specifically, Congressman Williams echoed Cuccinelli’s calls on Congress to be more proactive and expressed his support for Border Patrol agents who find themselves overwhelmed by the number of individuals arriving at the border.
Rep. Williams expressed concerns from constituents and the effects of illegal immigration he has personally seen in the congressional district he represents.
The congressman also advocated for legal immigration by saying, “I want everybody to realize the American dream…but they should do it legally. We’ve got laws to make it happen.”
Director Cuccinelli acknowledged the unique challenges Texas faces as a border state. Many communities, like Laredo, seek to keep relationships across the border “accessible and alive.”
Both Congressman Williams and Director Cuccinelli reiterated the need for bipartisanship and mutual cooperation if the border crisis is to be ended.
Congressman Williams represents the 25th congressional district stretching from Tarrant County to Hays County including parts of the Texas Hill Country.
He currently serves on the House Financial Services Committee and both coaches and manages the Republican Congressional Baseball Team.
Prior to serving as Director of USCIS, Director Cuccinelli served as Virginia’s attorney general from 2010 to 2014 and in the State Senate of Virginia from 2002 to 2010.
Sarah McConnell is a reporter for The Texan. Previously, she worked as a Cyber Security Consultant after serving as a Pathways Intern at the Department of Homeland Security – Citizenship and Immigration Services. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Texas A&M as well as her Master of Public Service and Administration degree from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M. In her free time, Sarah is an avid runner, jazz enthusiast, and lover of all things culinary.