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WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today questioned Acting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Administrator Chad Wolf at the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing to review the President’s fiscal year 2021 DHS budget request. Lankford questioned Wolf on drug enforcement and interdiction at our nation’s border, including fentanyl and heroin, and the need for technology and drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs to protect our borders. Lankford also asked about the need for additional work on the H2-B visa process and asked about whether DHS would pursue Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) waivers in building the border barrier fencing.
In December 2019 Lankford supported a federal spending bill that included additional border patrol processing coordinators that allowed 240 agents to go back to the front lines to secure our nation’s ports and borders. Lankford remains directly involved in communicating with the Trump Administration about updating our nation’s visa process and visa caps to appropriately meet the needs of Oklahoma companies seeking workers. In May 2019 Lankford previously questioned DHS about RFRA waivers and did so again today to ensure he continues to provide oversight of the law’s implementation.
On fentanyl and drugs crossing the southern border
(00:37 – 01:55) Lankford: We talked a lot about the technology. I met with some companies recently in Oklahoma that are doing a significant amount of research on handheld devices to be able to help detect Fentanyl and other illegal substances coming across our southern border. There’s a lot of dialogue about what you have already put into place in technology but it’s always interesting to me that almost everyone I talk to in technology says we’re trying to get as good as a dog’s nose so let me ask you the odd question with this on what’s happening with our ports of entry in other locations. How are we doing getting more dog’s noses there as we are trying to be able to work towards getting more technology that’s almost as good as a dog’s nose in this process. Are we increasing our dogs sniffing presence in all of these locations, how are we doing adding technology to be able to line up with that as well?
Wolf: So it’s all the above Senator. We’re certainly looking at both the technology, again the people, the K-9 assets as well. As we mentioned earlier, about two-thirds of the illicit drugs that we see, the opioids, the Fentanyl, but also marijuana, all of the narcotics are coming through our ports of entry. About one-third is between our ports of entry and that number is rising so we’re concerned about that as well. So we have a number of investments that have been made by Congress in FY19 and 20 for that NII technology. We’ll continue to invest in our K-9 workforce.
On ICE soft-sided facilities
(02:42 – 04:05) Lankford: The soft-sided facilities that CBP has put into place because there weren’t enough ICE beds. They cost a tremendous amount of money. How is that going in balancing out better quality ICE beds at a lower price than CBP having to do more expensive temporary soft sided facilities to be able to handle individuals coming across the border.
Wolf: I think our idea is to get out of the soft sided facility business so obviously we did that because of the surge last year, again thank you to Congress for providing those resources to do that. What we’ve seen is the numbers have decreased over the last several months. We’re able to take a number of those soft sided facilities offline, again to continue to save money. So we’ve taken one facility offline. We’re taking another three offline in the coming months assuming our numbers continue to hold. And that will be about a $20 million savings for month as we continue to take those offline.
Lankford: Is the goal to at some point if there is a surge again to be able to surge into ICE facilities or surge back into soft-sided?
Wolf: What we’re trying to do is to move some of these soft-sided facilities into hard-sided facilities. So we do need that capacity, that surge capacity on the southwest border. We would like that to be in a hard-sided facility versus a soft-sided. Overtime it would be more cost effective. As far as ICE beds, we do a number of modeling most of which we share with the committee almost all that we do share with the committee. We continue to see an increase the beds that ICE continues to need.
On H2B visas
(04:47 – 05:47) Lankford: Senator Shaheen had mentioned before about the H2B visas. I know Congress has given authority to be able to double the number of visas and that was Congress’ statement to say ‘you can go up to twice as much but you’ve got to be able to look at the Department of Labor and the numbers that are there.’ Now you’ve mentioned already that Congress the best to be able to set that number. Congress has said ‘hey work with the Department of Labor and see what we need at this point.’ And you have the opportunity to go up to twice as many as you’ve done in the past. There was the Wall Street Journal story out last Friday saying that there is some conversation about there may be up to 45,000 additional visas that may come online soon. That’s not been released by your team yet. I would say that if you’re choosing to do that, Congress has already spoken into that to say ‘ you have to have permission to do that—a number even higher than that even. But if you choose to be able to do that, do that as quickly as possible if that stretches out into June and July before those actual releases come. That’s too late for the season, and so trying to be able to get those done faster is better than slowly trying to being able to piece those out.
On DHS waiving RFRA in construction of the border barrier
(06:00 – 07:24) Lankford: This issue of RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the waiver that is being put in place for construction of the wall. I’ve been very confused by this because DHS has said we are waiving RFRA and we have authority to do that when RFRA actually says you can’t waive this unless Congress specifically states that it can be waived. I know this is going to be a battle of the lawyers to be able to determine. What I’m trying to figure out is why is there a need to even waive RFRA because as far as I can tell, there has never been a need to be able to waive that. So, why preemptively say were going to when there’s not really a statement to a statement to say we waive religious freedom protections to be able to build the wall.
Wolf: I’ve looked into that issue, thank you Senator. I will say that the last 12 or 13 waivers that I believe we have signed have not waived RFRA. You have my commitment to make sure that as we look at any waivers going forward that are put before me, I’m going to ask a series of questions. Specifically, does this inhibit building the border wall system at any point? I think we often times air on the side of caution on what we waive and I think it’s incumbent on part of the department to ensure what we’re waiving has a specific impact on the number of miles that are being built in that specific area. As you know, the waivers are specific to specific sectors and miles so it’s incumbent upon us. I will say the department has not waived that again in the last 12…
Lankford: Since 1993, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never been waived. I’d like to not have a first.
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