Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen called on Congress to act on immigration reform, telling an audience at the U.S. Capitol that President Trump signing an executive order suspending family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border meets a humanitarian need.
The House last week rejected one comprehensive Republican immigration proposal and tabled another bill that would provide $25 billion for the president’s border wall through 2022 as well as end family separations.
“Obviously, we are all focused in recent weeks on unaccompanied children and others who congregate across,” Nielsen said at the Capitol Hill National Security Forum at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. “Unfortunately, our loopholes encourage that behavior, and I want to be very clear here: Of the 12,000 UAC’s [Unaccompanied Alien Children] that are currently housed in HHS facilities, 10,000 are unaccompanied, which means 10,000 of those kids were sent here without a parent, without a legal guardian in the hands of smugglers, in the hands of traffickers.”
On Wednesday, Trump signed an executive order halting the separation of undocumented immigrants from their children at the border once an arrest is made, a course of action put into practice this year under the Justice Department’s zero-tolerance policy that prosecutes all illegal crossings. The children are currently kept in supervised shelters for up to 57 days from Texas to New York; critics say the Texas processing facilities have kept children in cages.
Nielsen and the Justice Department help draft the document executive order at the White House. The previous evening, Nielsen was faced by protesters while having dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Washington. A video clip of the encounter later went viral on social media.
“How can you enjoy a Mexican dinner as you’re deporting and imprisoning tens of thousands of people who come here seeking asylum in the United States?” a protester asked Nielsen.
“We have done everything we can do within the executive branch to support our borders, uphold our ideals,” Nielsen said at the Thursday forum. “This is a very difficult and complex issue, as you know. It’s one that presidents have struggled with it for decades, it’s one that Congress has struggled with for decades. What the president did yesterday was to try to make clear that what we don’t need to do as Americans is pit the enforcement of law against our humanitarian ideals. We need to do both at the same time.
“So, what [Trump] tried to do enables us to do that until Congress acts,” she added. “And I want to be very clear on this: Congress has the responsibility and the authority to make the law of the land and to fix the immigration system.”
As of March, illegal immigrants arrested trying to cross the border increased more than 203 percent over last year, while the immigration case backlog has ballooned to 684,000 cases due to the number of cases and the number of immigration judges. Additionally, the number of unaccompanied alien children encountered has increased by more than 800 percent and the number of families encountered has increased more than 680 percent.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) spoke onstage with Nielsen, and said that DHS faces legal loopholes that favor drug cartels and smugglers.
“When I talk about the border, I talk about about it as a national security issue, not just an immigration issue,” he said.
In April, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan testified to the committee that 40 percent of illegal immigrants are now kids and families, but did not specify family separations in his description of the detention process.
“For a member of a family unit, they are picked up by [Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” McAleenan said. “They are turned over to ICE; ICE takes them over to a family residential facility where they are processed and detained, generally for less than 20 days. That’s the expected standard due to court decisions in the 9th Circuit. They are then released pending a court hearing, which could happen many years out.”