WASHINGTON (CN) – Ahead of a Senate vote next week to reject President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen held firm amid tough questions from Democrats and told lawmakers during a tense hearing Wednesday the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border is real.
Testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee, the secretary faced questions from legislators for three hours on border security and oversight of the Trump administration’s controversial zero-tolerance policy which included the separation of families trying attempting to gain entry at the southern border of the United States.
The criticism from Democrats came hot and heavy as Nielsen frequently pushed back against assertions that the department’s treatment of immigrants and their families at the border was “inhumane” and “un-American.”
“We face a crisis, a real, serious and sustained crisis at our border. Make no mistake, this chain of human misery is getting worse,” Nielsen said.
Nielson’s assertion echoes comments made Tuesday afternoon by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, who said the southern border is “at the breaking point” after 76,000 immigrants crossed into the U.S. last month, more than double the amount from a year prior.
But Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., tried to steer Nielsen away from repeating the president’s message that the U.S. is under siege by incoming immigrants.
“When it comes to border security, what the American people have heard from the Trump administration is misleading at best,” Thompson said.
In January, Thompson threatened to subpoena Nielsen to testify on the department’s family separation directive. The secretary initially rebuffed the invite, citing the partial government shutdown as the reason to delay the meeting.
“But today you can be complicit or you can correct the record,” Thompson said.
“There is an emergency,” Nielsen insisted. “I have seen vulnerable populations. This is a true humanitarian crisis that the system is enabling. We have to change the laws.”
But before discussing how laws should be changed, Nielsen was asked to explain whether current laws were actually being followed.
The secretary denied that asylum-seekers at the border were being turned away. She said all those seeking asylum are given a chance to “present their case.”
“We’re not turning anybody around but we’re exercising statutory authority to return migrants who have arrived to Mexico when we can. It ensures a safe and orderly flow. Asylum-seekers are also given written directions” about how to find legal counsel and other assistance, Nielsen said, referencing the so-called “Remain in Mexico” policy rolled out by Homeland Security last December.
Until the policy was officially enforced in January, longstanding law permitted asylum-seekers to remain in the U.S. pending their court hearing. That changed with new “migrant protection” protocols forcing immigrants fleeing Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to hunker down in Mexico as they await processing of their asylum applications.
This struck a sour chord with Representative Nanette Diaz Barragan, D-Calif., who questioned Nielsen’s testimony in light of what she saw during a trip crossing the southern border last weekend
“Either you’re lying to this committee or you don’t know what’s happening at the border,” Barragan said. “I was crossing the border with my mother on Saturday and heard a gentleman say he was from Honduras and wanted to apply for asylum. The agent said, ‘Unless you have a visa, you need to leave.’”
Asylum-seekers weren’t given a list of resources nor provided access to counsel as Nielsen testified, according to Barragan, who also said she was instructed by a customs agent to stop filming when she pulled out her phone to record the interaction.
“They don’t want people to know what is happening,” Barragan said, before telling the secretary she had “no compassion” for allowing children to be separated or existing laws to go ignored.
Nielsen pushed back, however, saying it was not the department’s policies that disturbed her but it was the number of children – some 60,000 by her count – who are willfully separated from their parents before trekking to the U.S. border alone or with human smugglers.
The U.S. separated more than 2,700 families last year and the department has yet to provide information about hundreds of children who were lost in the system.
“My heart breaks for the system that we have. It doesn’t allow us to help vulnerable populations as soon in their journey as we need to help them,” Nielsen said, calling herself “extraordinarily compassionate.”
In addition to the 76,000 immigrants who came to the border last month, Customs and Border Protection reported Tuesday that family units and unaccompanied alien children comprise roughly 60 percent of all apprehensions at the southwest border.
CBP also reported seeing 70 groups of 100 or more people trying to cross the border, plus an uptick in immigrants apprehended at remote areas between legal ports of entry.
The influx prompted the department to implement an interim medical directive which will increase medical support at entry points and emphasize care for children.
But the new program, while helpful, won’t turn back the department’s decision to place children in cages, Democratic lawmakers told Nielsen.
Chairman Thompson engaged in a heated back-and-forth with Nielsen after she flatly denied that children were placed in cages.
“Sir, they are not cages. We don’t use cages for children. To my knowledge, CBP never put a child in cages,” Nielsen said.
Incredulous, Thompson pressed the secretary to admit the cages exist.
“I saw them and you did too. All you have to do is admit. Don’t mislead the committee,” he said.
The denial prompted Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., to ask Nielsen more pointedly what she would call a “chain link face, enclosed into a chamber on a concrete floor.”
“Is that a cage?” Coleman asked.
“It’s a detention space that you know has existed for decades,” Nielsen fired back.
The secretary also denied assertions that her department initiated the separation of families for the express purpose of deterring entry to the U.S.
“The whole purpose of that was to increase consequences for those who choose to break the law. If there is no consequence, we do not see the instances of crime decreasing. So what we did was we increased the number of prosecutions,” Nielsen said.