Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) is helping to spearhead an effort to streamline the screening and deportation process for migrant families who have entered into the United States without valid legal claims for asylum.
“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 on Thursday. “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.”
Referring to the program as “Operation Safe Return,” Sinema helped craft the pilot program with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who chairs the Homeland Security Committee in the Senate. She initially got involved the program’s creation after the Trump administration discussed potential changes to American asylum laws and mulled over challenges to court rulings that have more recently dictated immigration policy.
“I just felt those weren’t the right answers,” Sinema said. “We wanted to solve the problem. We wanted to protect the asylum process for valid applicants … and we want to respect the Flores decision.”
Federal courts during the Obama administration ruled that the government is prohibited from detaining alien children for longer than 20 days. Since the 20-day window is often not long enough to process the detained immigrants, children and their accompanying adults are consequently separated so as not to violate what is referred to as the Flores consent decree.
“With Operation Safe Return we want to send a message to the people of Central America: Don’t indebt yourself to these human traffickers — the most evil people on the planet,” Johnson said. “It’s not worth it.”
“As sympathetic as I am toward anyone who yearns for the freedom and opportunity that America provides, it is not possible to properly accommodate all who do. Those who enter our country illegally without a valid asylum claim put themselves and our society at risk,” he continued. “The goal of our policies should be to reduce the overwhelming flow of illegal migration and convert it to a controllable number of legal immigrants.”
Sinema and Johnson are joined by seven other senators in their push to enact Operation Safe Return along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democratic Sens. Doug Jones (D-AL) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) crossed the aisle to join Republican Sens. John Barrasso (R-WY), John Cornyn (R-TX), Mike Enzi (R-WY), James Lankford (R-OK), and Rob Portman (R-OH) in the effort.
The bipartisan group of nine penned a letter to acting Homeland Security Sec. Kevin McAleenan that describes the pilot program, reported The Arizona Republic. They will be meeting with McAleenan face-to-face in the coming weeks to discuss the program in greater detail.
“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 homes,” the Senators wrote to McAleenan. “The process would use existing authorities, but surge necessary resources to a limited, particular location on the southern border.”
“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 continued.
“[The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection] indicated a strong interest in this program for several reasons,” Sinema added.
NOTE: The article has been updated to reflect that Sinema is helping to lead Operation Safe Return with Johnson, rather than being the sole lead of the operation.