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House Judiciary Committee Member Discusses Turmoil At The Southern Border


The stories of the crisis on the U.S. southern border just keep coming. Dangerous overcrowding, squalid conditions, adults and children held for days and weeks at a time - issues that Acting Inspector General Jennifer Costello describes as urgent and needing immediate attention and action.

Well, next week, the House Judiciary and Oversight committees will be holding hearings on the conditions at detention centers. In California, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren chairs the House Judiciary Committee's Immigration and Citizenship subcommittee. She joins us now on the line. Welcome to the program.

ZOE LOFGREN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: I want to begin by asking about what you want to hear from the administration next week, what you hope these hearings will accomplish, because the details of what's out there have been out there for the last couple days.

LOFGREN: The first thing that we're going to do - I just spoke with Jerry Nadler earlier today. We are going to have an oversight hearing to fully explore the inspector general report so we have the full picture from the inspector general herself.

What's happening is really outrageous and unnecessary. We're lucky that more kids haven't died, but any is too many, and several, as you know, have lost their lives. The conditions do not meet legal standards. The department is in violation of the law, and, apparently, they have no plan that we can see to come into compliance with the standards they are required to meet both under law and under court order.

CORNISH: Now, we heard from the head of the union that represents border agents and staff on our sister program Morning Edition, and he pointed the finger at Congress. Here are his comments.


BRANDON JUDD: Congress is the body that determines the facilities that we have. Congress is the body that determines how we end up treating these children, how we treat the people in our custody. And so, again, we only can do with these individuals with the resources that we're given.

CORNISH: Is this happening because Congress has failed to appropriate enough money?

LOFGREN: Well, there is additional funds going for humanitarian efforts. But I will point out that we have appropriated funds, but we also have appropriated funds that have never been used. One of the things that we appropriated in January was funding of something called the Family Case Management Program, which had a better-than-95% appearance rate for people who were in the program to show up for their hearings.

When I went to the border, I asked about the implementation of the program. They just blew it off. They didn't follow their obligation to start that program.

We do not have the capacity to incarcerate every person who is seeking asylum until their hearing is heard. That has never been the practice, and it's completely unnecessary. But that's the way they're operating the system. Small wonder they have created this mess at the border. They don't have a clue what they're doing.

CORNISH: At the same time, the House and Senate did pass a $4 1/2 billion aid package for the southern border. And there was a split in your party about that package. You voted no on it because it lacked accountability measures for the administration. Did the House speaker make a mistake by giving in and passing the Senate version without those provisions?

LOFGREN: Well, I don't think the speaker had a choice. I think the inspector general's report is prime example No. 1 of why standards that were in law as part of the appropriations package were so richly needed. The activities that are being undertaken at these border stations violate existing law. We've got to require that the standards in law be met and that the - Judge Gee's standards in the Flores settlement are enforced as to children.

CORNISH: Congresswoman, where does that leave Democrats? Is it basically just kind of oversight and drawing attention to the issue? Or what can you do to really address what is turning into a humanitarian crisis?

LOFGREN: Well, first is oversight, and we are going to engage in that very strongly. The other aspect, of course, is legislation with the Senate. The Republicans, apparently, will never react to misdeeds on the part of the administration. Since they control the Senate, that avenue is blocked.

The third element is the courts. We have a very courageous district court judge in Los Angeles who is already dispatching monitors and, I think, is getting ready to make further orders that the administration will not be able to ignore.

CORNISH: California Democrat Zoe Lofgren chairs the House Judiciary Committee's Immigration and Citizenship subcommittee. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LOFGREN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.