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Homeland Security chief calls U.S.-Mexico border issue a 'serious and sustained crisis'

U.S. Department of Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen, testifying at a House of Representatives committee hearing, is pressed about the Trump administration's declaration of a national emergency at the Mexican border, as well its policy of separating children from adults who cross into the U.S. between ports of entry.

Democrats press Nielsen on why DHS gave no directions on child separations for several weeks

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified last year on Capitol Hill on Washington. Nielsen took over the role in December 2017 from John Kelly. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

U.S. Department of Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen, testifying at a House of Representatives committee hearing, was pressed Wednesday about the Trump administration's declaration of a national emergency at the Mexican border, as well its policy of separating children from adults who cross into the U.S. between ports of entry.

House homeland security committee chair Bennie Thompson said he wanted to use the hearing in part to give Nielsen the opportunity to start a "serious discussion," rather than echoing Trump's claims of a security crisis at the border.

Nielsen, in her opening statement, called the situation at the border "a real serious and sustained crisis."

"No rational person would design an immigration system like we have today — it's dangerous for Americans, it's dangerous for migrants, it undermines our nation's values and it fails to uphold our fundamental obligations to the American people," she said.

Nielsen engendered controversy last year after denying the government was separating migrant children from their families. Her denials came even weeks after then Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April 2018 that adults who crossed between ports of entry would be arrested and recommended for prosecution for illegally crossing, which is a misdemeanour, with their children held at separate facilities, many run by for-profit private companies.

The policy was panned by Democrats and some Republicans and rescinded by Donald Trump via executive order, but a flurry or lawsuits resulted. Previous congressional hearings have painted a picture of confusion and chaos at the border, with myriad agencies with a stake in the process — including Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services — not properly tracking who had been separated and or instituting a process on how to eventually reunite them.

Protests interrupt session

New York Democrat Kathleen Rice asked Nielsen why her first implementation guidelines as DHS secretary came a month after the Sessions announcement. Nielsen said the delay owed to the complexity of implementing the policy and the number of agencies involved.

"Kids should be with their families," Nielsen admitted, to a battery of questions from Illinois congresswoman Lauren Underwood about the traumatic effects for children of being separated from parents, but said the primary trauma being suffered was due to the arduous journey of hundreds of miles to the border.

A small group of protesters leave as Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies on Wednesday. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

The session Wednesday was interrupted twice within its first two hours by protesters.

Customs and Border Protection released Tuesday that indicated more than 76,000 migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in February, more than double the number from the same period last year. Most were families coming in ever-increasingly large groups.

The system "is well beyond capacity, and remains at the breaking point," U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said during a news conference Tuesday.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Kevin McAleenan speaks during a news conference in Washington. Officials expressed alarm at the recent uptick in numbers and the changing demographics of those arriving at the southern border, including more families and unaccompanied children. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

The new figures reflect the difficulties Trump has faced as he tries to cut down on illegal immigration, his signature issue. But it could also help him make the case that there truly is a national emergency at the border — albeit one built around humanitarian crises and not necessarily border security. The Senate is expected to vote next week and join the House in rejecting his national emergency declaration aimed at building border walls, but Trump would almost certainly veto the measure and the issue is likely to be settled in the courts.

Critics argue the administration's own policies are exacerbating the situation. Border officials have been limiting, or "metering," the numbers who can submit an asylum claim at ports of entry, with the unintended consequence some then attempt to cross between border points.

Nielsen said metering was designed to "ensure a safe and orderly flow" of migrants given that facilities aren't equipped for large families, but New Mexico congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small, whose district includes the border with Mexico, suggested the approach may be diverting some migrants to the more dangerous routes between the ports of entry.

At one point, Thompson and Nielsen clashed over whether children had been put in cages.

Increase, but not historically high

Democrat Jim Langevin of Rhode Island produced a chart tracking the data since the 1970s. The number of apprehensions was about 400,000 over the last budget year, for example, compared with the high of 1.6 million in 2000.

Langevin called it "inaccurate and deceitful to inflate numbers."

"The president is just wrong," he said.

The administration's child separation policy led to widespread protests last year, including at Logan Square in Philadelphia on June 30. (Tim Tai/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

Nielsen said the overall number wasn't the only factor to consider, but the changing demographics of who's coming to the border.

Those apprehended used to be mostly single men from Mexico, but are now mostly families from Central America – since October, more than 130,000 families have been apprehended between ports of entry. From October through September 2018, about the same number of families was apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. Tens of thousands of children illegally cross the border alone. While single men used to evade capture, the families are seeking out agents.

Nielsen said the administration would soon be announcing a compact on irregular migration with the Northern Triangle countries that are the source of most of the people — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Republicans on the committee sought to support Nielsen's contention there is a crisis, focusing many of their questions on drug seizures at the border, people-smugglers who prey on vulnerable migrants, and the MS-13 gang, which has its roots in El Salvador and the U.S.

To ease the migration burden, the administration has convinced Mexico to take in a few dozen migrants per day who are awaiting an answer to their U.S. asylum claims.  

Mexico's ministry has said the actions taken by the Mexican and U.S. governments do not constitute a "safe third-country" scheme as exists between the U.S. and Canada. Mexico's ability to guarantee migrant safety are doubted given the country's issues with drug cartel and gang violence.

The so-called "remain in Mexico" approach the administration is trying to employ has been challenged in court.

"What you all are doing is not in the confines of the law," California congresswoman Nanette Barragan charged.

Trump has derided the process often followed by previous administrations, where those waiting on a decision for their asylum claim were released into the community. Many stayed on illegally in the U.S., staying in the country after an adverse ruling on their case or not showing up at all for their immigration court date, a process that can take months or even years.

Customs and Border Protection has said in the wake of the deaths of two children in custody that it has stepped up medical screenings. The agency also announced sweeping changes including more rigorous interviews as migrants come into the system.

Nielsen said the deaths of the two children were still under investigation.

"Any death is a tragedy, any death should be prevented," she said.

With files from Associated Press

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