Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen sparred with newly empowered House Democrats over President Trump’s immigration policies Wednesday, defending his recent misstatement that border apprehensions were at an all-time high.
Nielsen called on Congress to address what she described as a growing emergency along the southern border even as Democrats pressed her to explain administration policies they condemned as inhumane and ineffective.
Nielsen defended Trump’s recent misstatement that there were “never so many apprehensions ever in history” at the U.S.-Mexico. border. Apprehensions in the mid-2000s routinely reached more than 1 million migrants a year. In the fiscal year that ended in September, 521,090 people were apprehended or stopped at the border. She said the nation is on track this year for a total of 900,000 apprehensions at the border.
Nevertheless Nielsen refused to contradict the president, saying that in “some categories, we have had record-breaking apprehensions,” such as in the category of families.
Nielsen’s testimony came during a hearing in the House Homeland Security Committee, the highest-profile clash between the Trump administration and the House panel since Democrats took control of the chamber. It was one of three hearings related to border security Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
The hearings came as the Trump administration has expanded a new policy requiring asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases are considered.
In a separate Senate hearing Wednesday, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told lawmakers that the “remain in Mexico” policy — previously just at the San Ysidro port of entry as part of a pilot program — is now in force at all three ports of entry in the San Diego sector. Administration officials had said they planned to expand the program.
“There was a concern that people would be crossing between ports, [but] now it is effective in San Diego sector as well,” he said. “It’s directly designed not to incentivize illegal behavior. If you cross illegally, you’re still going to have to wait in Mexico for your court proceeding.”
In the House, several heated exchanges between Nielsen and Democrats boiled down to a debate over semantics.
Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) said the practice of separating children from their parents was an administration “policy,” while Nielsen called it “law.”
Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said detained children were put in “cages,” while Nielsen said they were put in areas “carved out for their safety and protection.”
Nielsen implored Congress to take seriously the administration’s controversial emergency declaration to build a wall, warning that the border is at a “breaking point.” She cited the more than 76,000 people who crossed the border in February — a 12-year high.
“Illegal immigration is simply spiraling out of control, threatening public safety and national security,” she said. “We have tens of thousands of illegal aliens arriving at our doorstep every month. We have drugs, criminals and violence spilling into our country every week.”
Before the hearing, Democrats suggested that a goal of the hearing was to get the administration on the record on its controversial policy of prosecuting adults who arrive at the border, resulting in the separation of children and their parents.
In response to questions from Democrats, Nielsen told lawmakers that no parents were deported from the United States without opportunities to take their children with them.
“There was no parent deported, to my knowledge, without multiple opportunities to take their children with them,” she said.
But Democrats expressed deep frustration with the administration on the issue and warned that the hearing was unlikely to end their investigations.
“When it comes to border security, what the American people have heard from the Trump administration is misleading at best,” Thompson said.
He demanded documents related to the border wall and asylum seekers that he said DHS has been lax in providing.
“Let me be clear, I’m prepared to use the tools at the committee’s disposal to obtain the information if the secretary fails to comply,” he said.
Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-San Pedro) questioned Nielsen’s statement that asylum seekers are not being turned away at the border, saying she personally witnessed that happen on two occasions.
“Either you’re lying to this committee or you don’t know what’s happening at the border,” Barragán said.
San Diego Union-Tribune writer Kate Morrissey contributed to this report.