Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended her department’s handling of immigration policy during a Wednesday hearing in which Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.) accused the DHS leader of having “no feelings, no compassion, no empathy” for migrants.
“You wanted to separate children and families and you wanted to do it ‘with compassion.’ So in the meantime, you didn’t do anything at all, and you let kids be separated without tracking them,” Barragán accused Nielsen.
Nielsen told the House Homeland Security Committee that the U.S. faces “a crisis, a real, serious, and sustained crisis at our borders” with “tens of thousands of illegal aliens arriving at our doorstep every month.”
“Make no mistake, this chain of human misery is getting worse. Yesterday we announced that the numbers of apprehension at our southern border have spiked again substantially. Since late last year, we have been seeing 50,000 to 60,000 migrants arrived at our southern border each month. But in February, we saw a 30 percent jump over the previous month, with agents apprehending or encountering nearly 75,000 aliens. This is an 80 percent increase over the same time last year and I report today that CBP is forecasting the problem will get even worse this spring as the weather warms up,” she said. “The projections are dire. The agency is now on track to apprehend more migrants crossing illegally in the first six months of this fiscal year than the entirety of FY 17. And at the current pace, we are on track to encounter close to one million illegal aliens at our southern border this year.”
Nielsen stressed that “this is not a manufactured crisis, this is truly an emergency” as the trends shift from single male migrants to more than 60 percent of the current flow composed of family units and unaccompanied children, and 60 percent non-Mexican.
“We have virtually no hope of removing them in the future and, importantly, our ability to help those truly in need is severely limited,” she said. “The vast majority of these individuals are from Central America. While many of them initially claim asylum and are let into the United States, only one in 10 are ultimately granted asylum by an immigration judge. Unfortunately, when it comes time to remove the other 90 percent, they have often disappeared into the interior of our country.”
Over the past five years, she told lawmakers, there’s been a 620 percent increase in families “or those posing as families” apprehended at the border.
Nielsen implored the members of Congress “to work with me — I’m happy to meet with anyone that has a suggested solution.”
“No rational person would design an immigration system like we have today. It’s dangerous for Americans, it’s dangerous for migrants, it undermines our nation’s values, and it fails to uphold our fundamental obligations to the American people,” she said. “Although we may disagree on solutions, I hope there can be a consensus that the current system isn’t working and that this is an emergency we must address together.”
Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) declared that under his leadership “the days of lax oversight of the department by this committee are over.”
He said he requested from Nielsen in a Jan. 4 letter “documents related to the border wall, the department’s interference with asylum-seekers at ports of entry, separation of families at the border, and treatment of children in their custody” but has only received “a handful” of docs by this point.
“The secretary has said the administration had no policy to separate children from their parents but internal memoranda makes clear she was aware the administration’s policy would require families to be separated,” Thompson said. “No amount no verbal gymnastics will change that she knew the Trump administration was implementing a policy to separate families at the border.”
Pressed by Thompson on family separations, Nielsen said “there was no parent who has been deported, to my knowledge, without multiple opportunities to take their children with them.”
Nielsen said smugglers are currently charging about $6,000 to get a person across the border, and more for families.
“And to your knowledge do they coach the migrants as to what to say when they get to the border to be able to get in?” asked Ranking Member Mike Rogers (R-Ala.).
“We have seen instances, absolutely, throughout the region where they are provided information on pieces of paper. There’s also advertisements through social media,” Nielsen replied. “There’s a WhatsApp conversation particular to this to give them, if you will, specific words to claim credible fear once they reach our border.”
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) grilled Nielsen on whether holding pens in immigration detention facilities differ “from the cages you put your dogs in when you let them stay outside.”
“It’s larger. It has facilities. It provides room to sit, to stand, to lay down,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen told lawmakers that family separations were intended “to increase consequences for those who choose to break the law.”
“That’s a bedrock of our criminal, as you know, the way that our criminal system works. If there’s no consequences, we do not see the instances of the crime decreasing. So what we did was we increased the number of prosecutions,” she said. “We didn’t make up the law. The law was already there. Former administrations also referred adult parents for prosecution. We took the prosecution numbers from about 20 to about 55 percent.”
The secretary acknowledged to the committee that “so far this year we’ve had three” children die in CBP custody, including a stillborn baby, and that she had not spoken with the families.
“‘So far,’ Madam Secretary? Are you expecting more children to die?” asked Barragán.
“No, ma’am. I just want to be accurate with the time. To be clear, any death is a tragedy. Any death should be prevented,” Nielsen responded. “And part of what I’ve asked this body to do is change the laws so that we have a better chance at protecting children.”