Hearing of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee on "Oversight of the Department of Homeland Security"
(As Prepared for Delivery)
Mr. Secretary, I'm outraged about the backlog in naturalization applications pending with your agency. I have been raising questions with your Department since the end of last year, when it became clear that you have a serious, serious problem on your hands. You know this, but your testimony only restates the same, tired excuses for why this backlog developed.
When it was announced in January 2007 that the fees for naturalization would be nearly doubled from $330 to $595, your Department promised applicants that the fee increase would improve your completion rates of citizenship applications by 20 percent. This has proven to be a false promise: Before the fee increase, DHS was acting on such applications within 7 months. But your agency has reported that instead of reducing this time, it will instead dramatically increase to 14 to 16 months.
I can't get straight answers on what you are doing to address this crisis. I can't even get a straight answer on what your objective is: I note that in your testimony today, you say that you have a processing goal of seven months. Does this mean you've abandoned the idea of reducing production goals by 20 percent?
In the mean time, almost a million and a half immigrants applied for naturalization, and a million of them are still waiting. These are people who have made America their home. They've raised their families here, worked hard and paid taxes. They want to make the ultimate commitment to our nation by becoming Americans.
You had to have known that fee increases would lead to a surge in applications. You knew that NGOs were conducting extensive citizenship campaigns. You knew that an immigration debate was raging in Congress that was making immigrants nervous about their future. And most of all you knew that these applicants - like immigrants before them - would be eager to participate in the upcoming Presidential elections.
Sadly, your agency apparently did little or nothing to prepare for the surge in applications. Now, because of this lack of planning, it's estimated that 580,000 applicants will be denied the right to participate in the November elections. Denied the right to vote, that most precious of rights.
You didn't prepare. But I ask you, what are you doing now to make up for that mistake?
I've asked your Department if you need more resources. You tell me "no." I've asked your Department to tell me if it needs more staff. You tell me "no." So tell me now, what is it you need? I'm tired of complacency. I want answers.
So let me ask you again, what do you plan to do to make sure that more than half a million people who were promised efficient processing of their applications and who so much want to vote in this year's election, will be able to do so? And I ask you to not just make a commitment to me and other members of this Committee. I ask you to make a commitment to each and every one of those would-be Americans that you will solve this problem once and for all. This is happening on your watch, it is your responsibility.
Mr. Secretary, the Administration announced last year that it would accept 12,000 Iraqi refugees in Fiscal Year 2008.
On page 17, your testimony says that the U.S. government has in place the resources to admit up to 12,000 Iraqis this year. What is it, Mr. Secretary, is it 12,000 or is that just some nebulous goal?
This is not a numbers game, Mr. Secretary. There are human lives - and often desperate human lives - behind each and every one of these refugee applications.
Some 2 million Iraqis have fled into neighboring countries, chiefly to Syria and Jordan. Far too many are living in desperate conditions and have nowhere else to turn for protection. Our nation has a moral obligation to honor its commitment to those refugees who are now vulnerable and at risk because of a misguided war our nation never should have fought.
These people can't go back to Iraq anytime soon. The UN High Commissioner has been quite clear on this point. In February, he said, "We have clear criteria for the promotion of returns - those criteria are not met by the situation in Iraq now."
Meanwhile, a recent ICRC report highlights humanitarian conditions in Iraq that have gone from bad to worse. It says the humanitarian situation in most of Iraq remains among the most critical in the world. Many people lack access to basic health care and clean water. Housing is unavailable or unsafe. Despite limited improvements in security in some areas, armed violence is still having a disastrous impact.
Obviously, Mr. Secretary, the Administration needs to respond to legitimate security concerns. But we cannot allow fear to stand in the way of our obligation to resettle the most vulnerable. Our historical commitment to refugees represents the best of American values, values that we cannot lose sight of, or we will have lost to the terrorists.
I understand that by the end of March, halfway through the fiscal year, you have admitted fewer than 3,000 Iraqis. In other words, you are less than 25% of the way toward meeting your annual target of 12,000. I have a hard time imagining that you will be able to reach this target, absent some extraordinary effort. I understand that DHS has committed to interviewing 8,000 refugees in the next three months, which would mean interviewing more Iraqis in one quarter than were interviewed in the entire year of 2007.
Can you commit to us today that the President's goal of 12,000 Iraqi refugees will be achieved in this fiscal year?
In 2007, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia enjoined DHS construction of a portion of the border fence in federally protected land in Arizona as a violation of federal law. Two weeks after you lost this lawsuit in court, you exercised sweeping authority under Section 102 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act as a get out of jail free card to avoid complying with the requirements of federal law - as ordered by a federal judge.
Section 102 allows you, in your sole discretion, to waive "all legal requirements" that you deem "necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads." In 2007, you waived 19 federal statutes, including the entirety of the Administrative Procedure Act. Today, your Department will issue two new waivers - one that nullifies 26 federal laws, and another that nullifies nearly 35 federal laws. These new waivers will create sweeping zones of lawlessness along nearly the entirety of the US-Mexico border. The New York Times is reporting that you refused to explain your decision to the House and Energy Commerce Committee.
Your waivers also apply to any "state regulations deriving from or related to the subject of" the federal laws named. Is it your position that your waiver preempts large, unnamed swaths of state law in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California?
Your new waiver applies to the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, a law protecting churches from unlawful seizures. Do you intend to construct the wall through church property without consulting with these religious groups?