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Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto as seen outside the Casa Presidente facility, where some immigrant children who were separated from their parents were being held, on June 25, 2018. She was denied entry. Photo by Luz Gray.

More immigration judges, legal aid and attorneys are needed to quicken the pace of processing families and unaccompanied minors who illegally cross the border, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto said after visiting the Estrella del Norte migrant shelter in Tucson, Arizona.

 “A key piece of what I think we're not talking about is how we fix the processing,” said Cortez Masto in a phone call Friday after visiting the shelter, adding “we have a backlog in a system that needs to be fixed.”

“I think we need...more judges,” the Nevada Democrat said, who will also visit the Kino Border Initiative operations Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico on Saturday. 

“We need to make sure that judges have discretion,” she said, noting that in September of 2018 former Attorney General Jeff Sessions decreed that immigration judges could no longer to use their discretion to terminate or dismiss cases. Sessions was fired in November and the ruling still stands.

She also called for more legal aid and attorneys willing to help represent “these unaccompanied minors and these family members and adults as well.”

The senator said that asylum seekers who have legal help show up to court.

“I know, after talking with some of the attorneys, that when you get them involved in these cases early on...they go to court, they show up at the end of the day,” she said.

The overtaxing of the undocumented migrant-processing system is leading to longer wait times, beyond the 72-hour legal requirement, in Customs and Border Protection detention facilities that are not suitable for families or children.

“What I just saw is these detention facilities were not built for families and children,” Cortez Masto said. “They were built for adults, male adults.”

“The goal, which it should always be, is that there is a 72-hour turnaround, that we're not keeping children and families in detention for a long period of time,” Cortez Masto said. “But it is happening.”

She said that faster processing would also lessen the time spent in shelters that contract with CPB to hold migrants while they go through the immigration process like the Estrella del Norte facility.  She said the longest she had heard of an unaccompanied minor staying at the facility, which is run by the nonprofit Southwest Key, was  “about a year and a half.” 

Neil Nowlin, a spokesman for Southwest Key, said that time spent in their Arizona facilities has fallen from an average of 60 days last year to roughly 30 days this year.

"Children have access to legal counsel, religious services and group therapy while in our care," Nowlin added.

Congress passed an emergency $4.6 billion spending bill in June to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis at the border, which included 30 new immigration judge teams to address a backlog of cases. The bill was supported by both Cortez Masto and fellow Democratic Sen. Sen. Jacky Rosen.

Ultimately, Congress needs to pass comprehensive immigration reform, she said.  However, with a presidential election next year and the president, as well as congressional candidates closely aligned with him, using the immigration issue to motivate GOP base supporters, any movement on that front is unlikely any time soon. 

“So we have, unfortunately, people in Congress playing politics with this,” she said. “We have a broken immigration system that needs to be fixed. I truly believe we should be working in a bipartisan way and comprehensive immigration reform. That's where this all starts and that's what we should continue to do in this country.”

She believes that foreign aid can also help slow the flow of migrants from Central America. That’s why she has been critical of the White House decision to withhold $370 million in aid from

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras until the nations do more to reduce migrant flows. 

“The real problem is what is happening in their home countries, and why are they fleeing,” Cortez Masto said, adding that the funds can be used to fight corruption, “stabilize that government, bring back, hopefully, good government and a good economy and keep people in their homes.”

She signed on to a letter last week with 23 other Senate Democrats to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo questioning the decision to withhold the funds, which help fight crime.

“In this context, we are deeply concerned that, by suspending at least $370 million in foreign assistance to Central America without an effective strategy to replace the efforts supported by this funding, President Trump is undermining our national security and curtailing efforts to stop drug trafficking, fight criminal organizations, and keep American citizens safe,”

This story was updated at 10:21 a.m. to incorporate comments from Southwest Key's Neil Nowlin and to clarify that the 72-hour legal detention requirement applies only to Customs and Border Protection detention facilities. 

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