Homeland Security Chief Cites ‘Humanitarian Catastrophe’ on Border

Homeland Security Chief Cites ‘Humanitarian Catastrophe’ on Border

WASHINGTON — Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, on Wednesday implored Congress to confront what she called a “humanitarian catastrophe” on the southern border by supporting President Trump’s call for a border wall and changing laws to crack down on asylum-seekers and illegal border-crossers.

In her first congressional appearance since Democrats took control of the House, Ms. Nielsen was defiant in the face of criticism of the administration for its treatment of migrant families at the border, especially its decision last summer to separate children from their parents.

“Our capacity is already severely strained, but these increases will overwhelm the system entirely,” Ms. Nielsen told members of the House Homeland Security Committee. “This is not a manufactured crisis. This is truly an emergency.”

Democrats demanded that Ms. Nielsen address the chaos that followed the family separation decision, the deaths of migrant children in federal custody and Mr. Trump’s claim of a national emergency at the border that he has said requires construction of a border wall.

Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and the committee’s chairman, said he hoped Ms. Nielsen would not simply parrot Mr. Trump’s assertions about how a border wall would prevent a crisis.

“The secretary can choose whether to be complicit in this administration’s misinformation campaign,” Mr. Thompson said, “or she can correct the record.”

In her prepared remarks, Ms. Nielsen echoed Mr. Trump’s repeated claims that the United States is eager to welcome immigrants who arrive legally, and granted asylum and refugee status to more individuals in 2017 than any other country in the world.

Democrats challenged Ms. Nielsen on the administration’s efforts to dramatically slow down the entry of legal immigrants. Critics say that the surge of families trying to enter the United States illegally is partly the result of the Trump administration’s decisions to slow the processing of asylum claims at legal ports of entry, forcing families to come into the United States elsewhere on the border.

Ms. Nielsen applauded the president’s demand for a wall. She also urged lawmakers to pass legislation that would allow the indefinite detention of families and to more easily turn back claims of asylum by migrants from Central America, who have been arriving in record numbers at the southern border.

Asked by Mr. Thompson if migrant families have been separated, and adults deported back to their country without their children, Ms. Nielsen said yes. She added that those relatives are given the option to return to their country with their children.

“To the best of my knowledge, every parent was afforded that option,” Ms. Nielsen said.

Representative Kathleen Rice, Democrat of New York, pressed Ms. Nielsen on whether she had supported the policy.

“We do have the legal authority to do it, as I understand,” Ms. Nielsen said. She added that she discussed the zero tolerance policy with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions before he announced it.

“Were you aware the zero tolerance policy would lead to minors being separated from their parents?” Ms. Rice asked.

“As a consequence for a parent going to jail, we in this country do not take the children to jail,” Ms. Nielsen responded.

“I take that as a yes,” Ms. Rice said.

Representative Lauren Underwood, Democrat of Illinois and the committee’s vice chair, asked Ms. Nielsen whether she knew of the impact family separation would have on the health of children.

“Tearing kids and their parents apart is immoral, ma’am,” said Ms. Underwood, a trained nurse. “It’s un-American and it’s just plain wrong.”

The practice, part of a “zero tolerance” immigration policy that drew swift condemnation after it was publicly announced last spring, quickly became a symbol of the president’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

Around the time, Ms. Nielsen repeatedly denied that the Department of Homeland Security had a policy of routinely separating migrant children from their parents at the border despite mounting evidence that thousands of families had been broken apart. During a news conference in June at the White House, she said she was offended by accusations that she would authorize separating children from their parents to send a message of deterrence.

But the department continued to separate families until Mr. Trump, facing enormous public pressure, signed an executive order meant to end the policy.

Customs and Border Protection data released on Tuesday showed that more than 76,000 migrant families crossed the southwestern border without authorization in February. That is more than double the levels from the same period last year.

For much of her tenure, Ms. Nielsen has been the subject of Mr. Trump’s ire over illegal immigration and border security.

Throughout much of 2018, Mr. Trump berated her privately for not doing enough to stop illegal immigration and accelerate construction of a wall along the border with Mexico. The president grew repeatedly angry with Ms. Nielsen for telling him that his ideas to stop immigration would be illegal or improper.

In May, Ms. Nielsen considered resigning after Mr. Trump vented at her for nearly a half-hour during a cabinet meeting at the White House. He accused her of failing to secure the border and yelled that the United States needed to “shut it down.” Ms. Nielsen decided to stay on, but told colleagues she did not know whether she could effectively lead the department.

By year’s end, reports were rampant that Mr. Trump wanted to fire Ms. Nielsen, but her credibility with the president has since improved. During the government’s 35-day shutdown over funding for the president’s border wall, Ms. Nielsen was a fierce advocate for the wall.

In recent weeks, Mr. Trump has complimented Ms. Nielsen’s work publicly. And on Wednesday morning, Ms. Nielsen made clear she would not stray very far from the president’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.

“Today’s migrant flows have created a humanitarian catastrophe,” Ms. Nielsen said in her opening remarks, citing the violence migrants face on their way to the border.

“Smugglers and traffickers are forcing migrants into inhuman conditions, demanding extraordinary sums of money, and putting their lives in danger,” she said. “And vulnerable populations — especially children — are coming into D.H.S. custody sicker than ever before.”

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