WASHINGTON (CN) — In a volatile interrogation at the House on Thursday, the leader of the Oversight Committee pushed America’s head of Homeland Security on the government’s ability to reunite immigrant families that have been separated at the border.
For his part, Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan denied that children have become lost in the system and insisted that Homeland Security had separated fewer than than 1,000 children of the 450,000 family groups that crossed since October 2018.
The assertion drew criticism from Representative Elijah Cummings, a Democrat who chairs the committee.
“The problem with your claim is that it is contradicted by the facts,” Cummings said.
“We now have documents that show that it is not to be true,” Cummings added, pushing McAleenan to verify independent government reports that Homeland Security was ill prepared to reunite children with their families.
Reminding the secretary that Homeland Security’s failure to turn over documents spurred a bipartisan subpoena from the committee, Cummings said he questioned whether there was an “empathy deficit” in the agency.
“I get tired of people saying that folks on our side of the aisle are beating up on Border Patrol,” the chairman complained as the hearing concluded. “I want us to keep in mind that we are dealing with children. We are dealing with people who are simply trying to live a better life.”
While McAleenan blamed the crisis at the border on immigrants exploiting a 20-day bail requirement set in the 2017 decision Flores v. DHS, Democrats saw another problem.
“The situation in the Northern Triangle has escalated hugely,” Representative Katie Hill said in recess, referring to the zone in Central America made up of the countries Guatemala, Honduras and El Savador. “You can say there is a correlation, but I don’t think you can say there is a direct cause and effect.”
Representative Rashida Tlaib, a fellow Democrat from Michigan, also denied that the Flores ruling is the problem, noting that the ruling is what ensures children receive proper treatment in custody.
“Let’s recognize that there is a crisis and that’s the separation policy,” Tlaib said.
In addition to pushing blame on Flores for the crisis, McAleenan told the House that the sanitation and overcrowding problems at the border detention centers are the fault of Congress not providing the proper funding.
McAleenan said the agency is doing its “level best” to care for detained children with the funding available, and denied news reports that border agents are withholding clean diapers and toothbrushes from children.
The assertion failed to impress Chairman Cummings.
“What does that mean when a child is sitting in their own feces,” Cummings asked, adding that “none of us would have our children in that position.”
“We are better than that,” the congressman continued.
Republicans meanwhile accused Democrats of “fabricating stories of cruelty.”
“President Trump has not built a single cage,” said Representative Jim Jordan Jordan, using air quotes around the word “cage.”
“The cages you see in the news and on Twitter were constructed by President Obama and his administration,” he added.
Like McAleenan, Jordan said the border problem needs a “Flores fix.”
“If we don’t change Flores, and you have to release families, they are never going to show up for their day in court where we can determine if they are here legally,” Jordan said.
McAleenan agreed, saying that, once released from custody, immigration cases for families are rarely adjudicated.
“They are more likely to cut off their bracelets, they are less likely to show up for hearings, they are less likely to show up for a final order for removal,” he said.
In Flores v. DHS, the Ninth Circuit ruled that unaccompanied migrant children are entitled to a bond hearing within 20 days of their confinement in border detention.
McAleenan said the subsequent expansion of that ruling to cover families was a siren call to Central American migrant families.
“We saw it on CBS News last night, a woman all the way from Venezuela said she knew if she brought her child she would be released,” McAleenan said. “The Flores settlement does not allow us to do what we were able to do under President Obama.”