Republican’s Operation Safe Return criticized as cover for mass deporation

Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) has a solution to stop border crossings by asylum-seekers: deport the vast majority as quickly as possible.

The rapid influx of asylum seekers since November has strained the government’s resources to the breaking point. As revelations about unsanitary conditions, human rights abuses, kids in cages, and extreme overcrowding in immigrant detainment facilities (which are routinely being called concentration camps) have emerged on a near-daily basis, lawmakers have been under intense pressure to do something about it.

The president’s response has been to exacerbate the issue with policy directives and threats like sending asylum seekers to sanctuary cities.

Others have taken a more measured approach.

In a roundtable hearing today, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security discussed Johnson’s Operation Safe Return. Johnson says that he’s been working with Democrats on the plan, though there was not much evidence of that during the hearing.

The committee also discussed a bipartisan interim report about the care of children and families in the immigration system, which has been the subject of much scrutiny.

The report made several findings and recommendations, including significantly accelerating the adjudication of asylum petitions to 20 or 30 days, which is at the heart of Operation Safe Return.

Johnson said that over the last five years, more than a million people have sought asylum; of those, only “about 15% have a valid asylum claim.” Yet only 12,000 have been deported to date. This, he says, serves as a tantalizing incentive for people to come to the United States.

So he wants to deport them, like yesterday.

In an appearance on Fox News, Johnson elaborated somewhat, saying his plan was essentially to take “those individuals who do not have a credible fear claim [and] safely return them to their home country.”

One of Johnson’s top priorities is to reduce the flow of people across the border, which he believes will be facilitated by sending people back post-haste. He blames much of the border crisis on traffickers, “some of the most evil people on the planet,” and believes that rapid deportations will send a message that they can no longer exploit the immigration system.

Most on the committee were on board with Operation Safe Return.

Immigration attorney Leon Fresco wasn’t particularly impressed with Johnson’s plan, telling the committee that expedited hearings typically find a credible fear to serve as an underlying basis for an asylum claim, which kicks it back into the regular stream of immigration procedure, so in reality it would merely prolong, rather than hasten, most deportations.

“I personally don’t view expedited removal process as the right way,” he said.

On Facebook, reactions to Johnson’s plan and its impetus were mostly favorable.

Operation Safe Return

The goal of our immigration policy should be to reduce the flow that is overwhelming our system. Let's turn it into a legal process. I'm working with Democrat colleagues on a pilot program called Operation Safe Return where we can rapidly and more accurately determine those families that clearly don't have a valid asylum claim and safely return them to Central America.

Posted by Senator Ron Johnson on Sunday, July 14, 2019

“We need to hire more immigration judges and let people be released to family members and monitored while their claims are processed. This is what we used to do, and our own government’s data shows that it was effective,” one person commented on Johnson’s video about the plan.

There were detractors, particularly regarding the senator’s claim that only 15% of Central Americans have valid asylum claims. “Clearly, your implied goals are that there are little, if any, valid asylum applicants from Latin America. Why is that?” one person wrote.

Twitter was even less impressed. “Remember when Jesus said only 15% of those asking for bread and fish were legit hungry?” one quipped.

In addition to Operation Safe Return, the committee spent substantial time discussing the detention of children and their treatment at the detainment camps.

“The immigration system is overwhelmed and fractured at every critical point … children below the age of 12 are at the heart of this crisis,” said Homeland Security Advisory Council chair Karen Tandy.

As unaccompanied minors and kids accompanied by adults other than family members have streamed into the country, lawmakers have been increasingly criticized over how they are being treated. Last week, protesters from League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) donned aluminum foil and carried dolls in cages as they chanted “free the children” and marched to Johnson’s Milwaukee, Wisconsin, office demanding that he use his influence to end mistreatment and abuse of the estimated 60,000 children who are being detained.

Rather than urge their release, the report recommended detaining the kids and their family members even longer through Congressional action overturning the Flores decision, which requires children to be quickly released to minimize the well-documented trauma of detention. Democrats on the committee were quick to criticize this idea. To the assertion that children should be detained longer if they’re accompanied by a human trafficker or non-relative, Senator Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) said that children shouldn’t suffer because of who brought them into the U.S.

“We can be secure and not harm children by indefinite detention,” Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) said of the implication that the children were some sort of risk to homeland security.

But Republicans on the committee seem to view detainment as more akin to a safe house than prison.

“You want to detain them to prevent them from going to a stash house or going into the sex trade,” Johnson said, citing a New York Times article about immigrants working off debt to traffickers as sex workers.

Under Operation Safe Return, the vast majority of those children would have already been sent back to their home country.

“Operation Safe Return is a baby step. If the laws aren’t going to be changed as this panel recommends, there’s nothing else … to stop kids from getting harmed,” Tandy said.

READ MORE: 

Got five minutes? We’d love to hear from you. Help shape our journalism and be entered to win an Amazon gift card by filling out our 2019 reader survey.

Claire Goforth

Claire Goforth

Claire Goforth is a Jacksonville, Florida-based journalist covering politics, culture, justice, and unicorns. Her work has appeared in publications ranging from regional alt-weeklies to Al Jazeera.