Attorney General Merrick Garland faced criticism from Republicans over the Biden administration’s immigration and policing policies on Tuesday as he navigated his first Capitol Hill appearance since taking his new post in March.
However, during a two-hour House hearing, the former judge managed to completely escape questioning on some of his department’s most attention-grabbing work. Topics not raised with him in the hearing included the investigation into the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 and a separate foreign-agent probe that led the FBI to carry out search warrants last week against former President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Republicans instead zeroed in on how the Justice Department is responding to increases in Central American immigrants, often families, seeking to cross the U.S. border with Mexico.
“It is a huge challenge and we basically have an invasion taking place in the southern border,” Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-Miss.) said. “I know we got to handle this in a humanitarian way, and I am all for that. And we are also a nation of law and order and, without that, we are creating chaos.”
Garland told a House Appropriations subcommittee that the administration is proposing a 21 percent increase to funding for immigration courts to help clear a 1.3 million-case backlog that the Trump administration began to shrink before it ballooned due to closures and slowdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m very concerned about the backlog. I think it obviously is not working for the people who are in the system and not working for the government,” the attorney general said.
Garland emphasized that frontline border enforcement is handled by the Department of Homeland Security. “They have the primary responsibility at the border … We have a large number of U.S. attorneys at the border that prosecute the cases that are brought to them.”
One Democrat, Rep. Ed Case of Hawaii, also pressed Garland on immigration issues. Case said delays in the immigration court process were encouraging human traffickers to send more foreigners into the U.S. illegally.
“It seems pretty obvious that the delay in adjudication, especially on the asylum side, is directly manipulated by those that are engaged in human trafficking,” Case said.
Garland said Biden’s budget proposal to add 100 immigration judges along with support staff should help cut the backlog.
“It’s very hard to project what the reduction will be, but with this kind of many-pronged attack on the problem, the impact should be very substantial,” the attorney general said. However, he ignored a question from Case about whether asylum laws needed to be overhauled — something Garland’s Trump administration predecessors strongly urged.
Garland also gave a confusing answer on gun buybacks, referring to the program as a way to take guns from people ineligible to own them because of felony convictions. The Biden administration has framed the effort as a broader, voluntary effort to try to reduce the number of assault-style weapons on the streets.
Republicans also questioned changes the Biden administration is making to civil rights programs, including budget increases for mediators at the Community Relations Service and a return to broad pattern-and-practice investigations of police departments involved in shootings of Black Americans.
Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) called the recent moves a return to “heavy-handed and constitutionally troubling” policies of the Obama administration. He also raised doubts about new funding for what he termed “sensitivity training programs” for police and said the shifts in funding “likely come at the expense of more important national priorities.”
“It’s important to know or evaluate any trade-offs that are being made. Your budget summary only tells one side of the story,” he told Garland.
The only mention of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol came during the opening remarks of the subcommittee chair, Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), but no one pressed Garland on the status of the sprawling probe.
Aderholt did press Garland on another violent episode: the 2017 shooting at a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va. The Alabama Republican asked the attorney general to explore and reverse a decision by the FBI to classify the shooting as a suicide-by-cop rather than domestic terrorism.
Aderholt faulted the response he got last week on the issue from a top FBI official, Jill Sanborn. Testifying before the same House panel, she appeared to defend the description of the effort but also said it would likely be called domestic terrorism under current practices.
“Unfortunately, I think the answer that I received was wholly unsatisfactory. As attorney general, are you able to right this obvious wrong?” Aderholt asked. “Many members of Congress could have lost their lives in that situation.”
Garland said he was aware of the controversy but had not yet been able to find out why the FBI changed its view on the incident.
“I don’t know enough about what the classification means at this point, but I promise I will raise this issue with the FBI,” the attorney general said.