WASHINGTON — Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said Sunday that a "small percentage" of migrants seeking entry into the U.S. fit President Donald Trump's characterization of the "worst" of society, insisting that a "vast majority" are doing so for economic opportunity.
"I would just say I would prefer the president would step out and say" that "a lot of these folks" are coming "for economic reasons," Lankford said on "Meet the Press."
"They want to be able to flee into an area where they have greater economic opportunities."
Lankford also says there are important security concerns. "On average, every day, DHS stops or interdicts 10 people that are on the terror watch list trying to come into the country. And so I have a real concern that we're demonizing law enforcement folks that really are trying to be able to do their job, because there are very real threats. But the vast majority of these individuals are coming for economic reasons."
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, disagreed with Lankford on the reason migrants are seeking entry into the U.S., saying many are fleeing violence in their home countries. "If you’re crossing the border illegally with no claim of asylum or refugee status, then that’s a crime, and we have a process for deportation," King said. "People coming to claim asylum are not illegal immigrants."
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"These are almost entirely people coming from Central America, not Mexico," King said, "and they are fleeing violence. And that’s one of the reasons this idea of a deterrent may not work if you’re looking down the barrel of a gun in your home community, whatever your chances are to get to a free country, you’re going to take it in order to save your family’s lives.”
Lankford also said that the federal government has information on the families for each migrant child recently separated from his or her family member at the border.
“Let me clarify this. We know where every single child is,” he said, asserting that the government has information on the family member with whom each child attempted to enter the United States with.
"These are career professionals that work with HHS and that work with DHS and customs and border patrol and ICE,” Lankford said. “These are not political appointees. These are career folks that know where every child is to be able to connect them to their parent or relative."
More than 2,000 children remain separated from their parents and in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at facilities across the country but Lankford said that while the government does not know where all the parents are, they do have an adult to connect them to.
"Often times that is a parent that is somewhere in the country, often times illegally as well. They came with another relative and so trying to be able to connect the dots to see if they — we need to connect them with their parent that’s already here in the country, connect them with a parent that may be in custody, going through procedures, whatever that may be. But yes. We do know how to be able to connect the people they came with as well."
During the effort to reunite the families, Lankford said some adults are being given ankle bracelets with notices to appear in courts, as the government works to reconnect them with the children they brought to the country.
The Oklahoma senator also called for 225 additional immigration judges as the administration struggles to process adults’ immigration proceedings within the 20-day window in which the government is lawfully allowed to hold migrant children in government custody.
The Trump administration sought relief from the courts this week to extend that 20-day period.
King said there is a bipartisan group of senators, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Ted Cruz, R-Tex., who met this week to discuss "alternatives" for processing those attempting to enter the country without separating the families.
"There's a bureaucratic backlog," King said on Sunday, echoing Lankford's call for more immigration judges to accelerate proceedings.