Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday that the Department of Homeland Security has put in place “sweeping security enhancements” to confront the threat of transnational criminal organizations, including securing the border with new personnel and technology.
“We now require every nation on Earth to start exchanging critical threat data with us to make it harder for the bad guys to reach our territory undetected,” she said. “We ramped up screening and vetting of foreign travelers, including required deeper background checks, deploying advanced technology, and operationalizing a groundbreaking new national vetting center. We’ve put in place the most significant changes to aviation security in a decade.”
Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) noted that “our border’s not secure, not even close” and “because we have a broken legal immigration system, we don’t have secure borders.”
Ranking Member Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said she was “really concerned” that DHS had its detention priorities mixed up. “In 2016, there were less than 150 detained that were on the suspected terrorist list… in 2017, we detained 300 people in this country that were on the suspected terrorist list that were in this country illegally, but the non-detained jumped to over 2,000,” she said. “And then, as of September, that number of non-detained is over 2,500. Somebody has got to explain to me how we have room, how we’re advocating for indefinite detention of families. And how we have room for pregnant women and thousands and thousands of children, but we are failing to detain those people in this country illegally that we have identified as suspected terrorists.”
Nielsen replied that there are “different types of detention” and “we use every last bed that we have; but, yes, we need more detention space.”
“HHS has a detention for unaccompanied children. That is explicitly used for that population; we can’t mix others in that population. We have family residential centers that ICE administers. We cannot put single adults in those facilities. And in fact, in those facilities we have to be very careful not to mix and match families, not mix and match sexes, so there’s very strict rules as to how we can house them,” she said. “In the single adult detention, we can also not use or not allow either of the other populations to be present there. So at the end of the day, what it comes to is just resources. There’s different buckets of detention space; I believe the detention space you’re talking about is the detention space reserved for single adults.”
McCaskill asked Nielsen for a report on “how you intend on getting all these suspected terrorists detained as quickly as possible.”
“Our country has watched, had a front-row seat, where we have detained a lot of people — children, even — that are not a threat to our country,” the senator added. “I don’t think most people in my state would understand why prioritizing suspected terrorists has not happened.”
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) asked Nielsen about how her department “notified Congress that DHS transferred tens of millions of dollars from a variety of DHS components, including the U.S. Coast Guard, TSA, FEMA and ICE to fund detention and removal of migrants, including children.”
Nielsen explained that “these were year-end monies that we’re not going to be able to spend” and DHS notified Congress as required.
“What we will do each year is be a good steward of the American taxpayer money,” she said. “If there are monies that are going to go unused, we’ll put it in a pot, and then we’ll divide it out amongst our highest-risk programs that need additional funds.”
Peters asked Nielsen, “How long is too long to detain a child?”
“We do not, at the Department of Homeland Security, detain children,” the secretary replied. “As you know, children are in the care of HHS. But in general, the answer as a short amount of time as possible. HHS works very hard to place those children with sponsors or family members.”
“Are you concerned about detention of children?” Peters continued.
“I am concerned that we need to take the best care of them that we can, and to place them with a family member or sponsor as soon as possible,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen said DHS “will continue to ask Congress to pass legislation to clarify that families can be detained until they are removed. If they have an asylum claim, they can be detained until we can adjudicate that asylum claim.”