(CNSNews.com) - At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) expressed more concern about the welfare of illegal alien children in U.S. custody than she did about the welfare of those same children on the perilous journey north, when they are subject to all kinds of injury and sexual abuse.
Harris was particularly concerned about allegations of sexual abuse in U.S. detention facilities; and about the removal of toys from children in Customs and Border Protection custody.
"My staff visited the El Centro Border Patrol station in January, and officials there told them that there is a policy of taking away all toys from children and that that happens upon their arrival, which means, of course, that when the children are in custody at this station, they have no access to toys, books or any other means of mental stimulation," Harris told U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan.
"Is this policy unique to El Centro, or is this happening in other detention facilities as well?" Harris asked him.
McAleenan said all CBP policies are "nationally consistent," which means that toys and books are removed from children at all CBP detention facilities.
Harris asked if CBP replaces the toys and books it confiscates from the children with other toys and books?
"So we're trying to provide the most appropriate custodial setting for the brief period the children are with us," McAleenan responded. "And it's got to be safe, that's the primary consideration."
"Do you believe that the children having toys would create an unsafe condition?" Harris asked.
"It depends on the toys," McAleenan responded.
Harris, interrupting, asked for examples of unsafe toys.
"Sure, we could go to the Consumer Product Safety Commission website and list all the types of toys that are legal in other countries that are not allowed here, and could be dangerous to children if they arrive with them. But that's something -- we need to be careful," McAleenan said.
In her earlier questioning of McAleenan, Harris pointed to reports that immigrant children may have been sexually abused while in custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Harris noted that 178 of the allegations were against staff.
McAleenan said in his experience, HHS and ORR personnel are "very committed to children...do a very good job of protecting children as they place them with sponsors."
Even though HHS/ORR personnel are separate from CBP, Sen. Harris made it look like McAleenan bears some responsibility for turning children over to alleged American abusers.
"Do you believe that you have any duty, or that your agency has any duty, to ensure that when you transfer these children to the custody of another agency that they will be safe?" Harris asked.
"I'm mandated by law to transfer these children. I don't have an ability to question that," McAleenan said.
"So you don't believe that you have a duty to determine that, upon transfer, these children will be safe?" Harris asked him.
"I'm required by statute to transfer these children to HHS within 72 hours," McAleenan said again.
Harris pressed him again: "Do you believe that you have any duty to raise a flag of concern that when you transfer these children to another agency that they may not be safe?" she asked again.
"I believe that's the duty of the management and leadership of Health and Human Services, their inspector-general, or the White House -- or Congress -- not mine," McAleenan said.
A short time later, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) asked McAleenan what he's seeing at the border.
He said many illegal immigrants are arriving either sick, injured, or sexually abused. "They're arriving very sick, and they're injured in the journey. The sexual assault problem is just terrifying,” McAleenan said.
"I mean, the Doctors Without Borders clinics in Mexico -- 30 percent of the women that come into those clinics have been sexually assaulted. I mean, that's a devastating number.
“We have women report every day -- last week, we had a woman in the Rio Grande Valley report that the smuggler sexually assaulted her on the river bank, as they arrived in the U.S.
“We had a child say she was assaulted by her guardian the night before they crossed, in Mexico...these are just devastating stories that our agents hear every day and that we try to address appropriately, get them medical care, see if there's any opportunity for investigation or prosecution of that smuggler or guide. Usually they've gone back south to Mexico before we can intervene.
“So these are the kind of stories we're hearing every day.”