The U.S. is being taken advantage of by transnational criminals and illegal aliens using legal loopholes to enter the U.S. southern border and needs an adequate budget to address threats, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen testified Thursday before the House Committee on Homeland Security.
It was the first appearance for Nielsen, a former DHS chief of staff, before the committee since she was sworn in last December. She also defended President Trump’s proposed border wall, presented her department’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal and discussed her vision for DHS.
“If you have an alarm in your home and you catch a burglar and you call the police, the police come — and in fact it is an illegal entry into your home — but the police then tell you that they have absolutely no ability to detain or remove those criminals and the criminals stay in your house, you would not tell me that is home security,” Nielsen said. “That is what we face at the border. We stop people, we interdict them, but we do not have the authorities given the loopholes in many cases to detain and remove them. We are forced to release them back into the communities after they have committed crimes.”
Trump’s fiscal year 2019 DHS $47.5 billion net discretionary budget proposal represents a $3.5 billion, or 7.8 percent, increase over the previous budget, and includes $1.6 billion toward the construction of 65 miles of a border wall, $5.1 billion for enforcement and removal operations, $3.2 billion to hire 687 Transportation Security Administration screeners at U.S. airports (for a total 43,877 TSA officers), $2.8 billion for 52,000 detention beds, $1.9 billion in U.S. Coast Guard upgrades, nearly $1 billion in federal cyber network protections, $571 million to hire 2,000 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, $511 million toward transportation costs to remove illegal immigrants, $223 million in border security technology improvements, and $164 million to hire 750 Border Patrol agents and more than 150 support personnel.
Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who introduced a bill that would authorize $18 billion toward the construction of the president’s border wall over the next decade, said that the U.S. policy of catch-and-release should be rescinded.
“Our homeland faces threats on multiple fronts. International terrorists seek to attack our country and kill Americans. Human traffickers, drug smugglers and gangs like MS-13 are crossing our borders and infecting our neighborhoods. Nation states and hackers are engaging in cyber warfare. And the next natural disaster can strike at any moment,” McCaul said. “We cannot let our guard down. We need a budget that matches these most pressing needs.”
“Fortunately, the president’s FY 2019 budget request addresses many of these concerns,” he added. “The $1.6 billion for a border wall and additional funds to hire more ICE officers and Border Patrol agents will help curb illegal immigration.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) called the president’s attempts to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program illegal, and asked for an update on the treatment of immigrants impacted by the policy change and subsequent legal battles.
“What is the department’s position, since most courts have indicated that DACA is a legitimate status, to indicate to your employees that they should not be treated precipitously and disrespectfully and detained, which is what is happening?” Jackson Lee asked.
Nielsen called DACA an “inappropriate use of executive power,” and said that while DHS is complying with all court injunctions it is not taking new applicants. A D.C. district judge ordered last week that DHS would have to resume accepting new applications 90 days after his ruling.
“So what that means is that if you are a currently registered DACA recipient you will not be deported. If you have applied for recertification as a DACA individual you also will not be deported,” Nielsen said. “We are not taking new applications… It’s not required at the moment. As you know, we ended the program.”
Ranking Member Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) chastised Nielsen for not conferring with committee Democrats like her predecessors, and said that the agency has not met legally binding deadlines for the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review due last December, a department-wide cybersecurity briefing before the committee due last month or the release of an update on the DHS headquarters consolidation project, which was due in August 2016.
Thompson also said he was concerned Nielsen has not been forthcoming with congressional lawmakers, citing January Senate testimony in which she said she could not recall whether Trump used a slur in describing African countries during a White House meeting.
“You claimed, ‘I actually do not know that,’ when asked at the Senate hearing whether Norway, [which] is a predominantly Caucasian country, after the president questioned why we could not have more immigrants from Norway. And most recently, you declined to explain the president’s tweet referring to a ‘breeding concept’ in sanctuary cities in California,” he said. “If this is an indication of how you as secretary interact with the White House on homeland security matters, that may be a cause for concern.”
Thompson added that immigration laws in regard to migrant children are not loopholes. “They are basic humanitarian protections enacted by Congress to protect vulnerable children and ensure that those who have legitimate asylum claims are heard, and those who do not are returned home safely,” he added. “Politicizing and demonizing children should be beneath the department.”
Nielsen didn’t back down, and said that statistics over the last month tell a dangerous story.
“Overall, the number of illegal aliens encountered at the border increased more than 200 percent when compared to the same time last year. Perhaps more troubling, the number of unaccompanied alien children encountered has increased over 800 percent and the number of families encountered increased over 680 percent,” she said. “We also saw a 37 percent increase in drug seizures at the border in March, and I am sad to report we have an increase of 73 percent in assaults on our border agents. This is unacceptable and it must be addressed. We must do more to secure our borders against threats and illegal entry and close dangerous loopholes that are making our country vulnerable.”