Washington -- Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen faced aggressive questioning from House Democrats about her role in spearheading the implementation of the Trump administration's hardline immigration agenda at a public hearing Wednesday.
Nielsen, who has managed to keep her job despite reports of rifts with the White House, testified before the House Homeland Security Committee led by Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. She was pressed by the committee's Democratic majority on her oversight of the administration's stringent immigration enforcement efforts, including the practice of separating migrant families near the U.S.-Mexico border.
In one tense exchange, Democratic Rep. Nanette Barragán of California blasted the secretary for her leading role in the discontinued policy, which led to the separation of more than 2,600 migrant children from their parents. "You said you waited to give direction on how to implement the zero tolerance policy, because you wanted to do it with compassion," she told Nielsen. "Do you know how outrageous that sounds?"
"You have no feeling, no compassion, no empathy here," Barragán later added.
When chairman Thompson asked about images of groups of children detained in cage-like facilities, Nielsen pushed back, saying the structures were not "cages."
"They are areas of the border facility that are carved out for the safety and protection of those who remain there while they're being processed," she told him.
Republican members of the committee largely focused their line of questioning on President Trump's controversial national emergency proclamation, which the White House says allows him to access billions of dollars in Pentagon construction funds to build a wall along the southwest border. Citing a recent surge in the apprehensions of migrant families from Central America near the border, they repeatedly asked Nielsen whether the declaration was warranted.
"This is not a manufactured crisis," she assured the committee, casting the southern border as a porous frontier where the free movement of "drugs, criminals and violence" is creating an urgent national security threat to the nation.
Here are some of the most noteworthy moments from the hearing:
"You have no feeling, no compassion, no empathy," California Democrat tells Nielsen
After a tense exchange in which she berated Nielsen on reports that some asylum seekers are being turned away at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, California Democratic Rep. Nanette Barragán blasted the secretary for her role in overseeing the administration's controversial family separation practice.
"You said you waited to give direction on how to implement the zero tolerance policy, because you wanted to do it with compassion," she said. "Do you know how outrageous that sounds?"
"You wanted to separate children and families, and you wanted to do it with compassion?" she added emphatically.
Before yielding back her time, Barragán sharply rebuked Nielsen. "You have no feeling, no compassion, no empathy here," she said.
Underwood grills Nielsen on physiological harm to separated children
Rep. Lauren Underwood, a fresh Democrat from Illinois, grilled Nielsen on the immediate and long-term psychological harm that can inflicted upon children if they are forcibly separated from their families.
Asked if she knew family separation could cause "trauma" and "toxic stress" for children when the administration implemented the policy, Nielsen said she was only aware of the psychological harm that the perilous journey north from Central America could have on migrant children. She added that she was not familiar with the term "toxic stress."
At one point in the exchange, Nielsen told Underwood, "I ask all parents who go to ports of entry not to bring their children."
Unsatisfied with the secretary's answers, Underwood said, "Tearing kids like this from their parents is immoral." She also said it was "un-American" and "just plain wrong."
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, some of the children who were separated from their mothers and fathers could endure "irreparable" psychological harm.
Citing deaths of migrant children in U.S. custody, Rep asks about DHS' medical procedures
Freshman Democratic Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, who represents a sprawling Republican-leaning New Mexico district that stretches across the southern part of the state and its border with Mexico, asked Nielsen about her agency's medical procedures for migrants.
Citing the December deaths of two migrant children from Guatemala in December, Torres Small pressed Nielsen on whether DHS has adopted a new strategy to provide medical care to migrants, particularly in remote areas between ports of entry.
Nielsen said the agency is working to provide better medical treatment to migrants, but stressed that it becomes difficult for U.S. officials to take care of migrant in rugged areas of the border.
This is a “legitimate crisis,” Nielsen tells Republican Rep
Citing DHS's seizure of illegal drugs worth millions and increased apprehensions of migrant families along the southern border, Republican Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina asked Nielsen to prove that the situation near the border is a crisis -- like the president has repeatedly said.
"If most Americans would go down to the border, would they consider this a crisis," he asked.
"Yes," Nielsen replied, calling it a "legitimate crisis" fueled by drug trafficking and human smuggling.
According to U.S. government statistics, most seizures of illicit drugs by immigration authorities along the border occur at ports of entry, not between them. Only "[a] small percentage of all heroin seized by CBP along the land border was between Ports of Entry," the DEA said in a 2018 report.
The Trump administration wants to construct barriers between ports of entry.
Jackson Lee presses Nielsen on her independence from the White House
Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee pressed Nielsen on whether she would issue agency directives that the president might disagree with but that are in the interest of American people.
"Can you independently make a decision in contrary to the president of the United States," Jackson Lee asked.
Nielsen largely demurred and said she swore an oath to the Constitution and the American people.
The Texas Democrat also asked Nielsen whether she advised the president on his emergency declaration and crafted any memos to help the White House justify issuing the controversial proclamation, which is being challenged in court and in Congress.
Nielsen said she provided Mr. Trump "all the facts" and the "operational reality" from the border. "It is an emergency. It is a dual crisis," she told Nielsen.
Nielsen: “Illegal immigration is spiraling out of control”
Echoing the president's remarks on immigration, Nielsen cast the southwestern border as a porous frontier where the free movement of "drugs, criminals and violence" poses a grave national security threat to the nation.
"Illegal immigration is spiraling out of control," she told members of the committee, citing a recent surge in the apprehensions of migrant families from Central America along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"This is not a manufactured crisis," she said, likely anticipating questions from Democrats, who have accused the administration of fabricating a national security crisis along the border to help the president fulfill his 2016 campaign pledge of building a border wall.
Nielsen can be "complicit" or she can "correct the record," Thompson says
In his opening remarks, Rep. Thompson said "a great deal" has happened since Nielsen last testified before his committee nearly a year ago.
"The Department of Homeland Security separated thousands of children from their parents at the border. Two small children died in the Department's custody," Thompson said.
He also noted that the president shut down the government for 35 days and recently declared a national emergency in search of "money for a border wall." The chairman urged Nielsen to partake in a "serious discussion" to devise an effective strategy to approach border security.
"Today, the secretary can choose whether to be complicit in this administration's misinformation campaign or she can correct the record," he said.
What are Democrats expected to grill Nielsen on?
Although some members of the committee will likely delve into other immigration-related issues, two congressional aides told CBS News the hearing will largely focus on border security and Nielsen's oversight of the administration's stringent immigration enforcement efforts.
According to the aides, the three main issues Democrats will be questioning Nielsen on are the following:
- The president's controversial emergency declaration: Mr. Trump continues to defend his national emergency proclamation, which he is relying on to unilaterally access billions of dollars from military construction funds to build a border wall. The move is being challenged in court through a multi-state lawsuit and in Congress through a resolution of disapproval that has passed the House.
- The discontinued family separation policy: In early 2018, the U.S. government implemented a policy to forcibly separate migrant children from their parents near the U.S.-Mexico border designed to deter migration from Central America, which had increased in recent months. Before the president was forced to rescind the policy after massive public uproar, more than 2,600 children were separated from their parents. A court order forced the Trump administration to reunify the families it separated, but today, some children remain separated from their families.
- The deaths of migrant youth in U.S. custody: In December, two migrant children from Guatemala -- Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, and Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, 8 -- died in Border Patrol custody. Their deaths provoked scathing criticism of the Trump administration by Democrats and prompted U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to order medical checks on every child in its custody.
1 of 4 hearings for Democrats to scrutinize the administration on immigration
The Homeland Security Committee hearing is one of four simultaneous hearings in which congressional Democrats will get a chance to scrutinize the Trump administration's immigration policies with their new oversight powers.
CBP commissioner Kevin McAleenan is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the DHS inspector general will appear before the House Appropriations Committee.
Additionally, dozens of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients will appear before the House Judiciary Committee to detail their experiences under the programs -- which the administration is seeking to terminate.
The backdrop: A "breaking point" for U.S. officials along the border
The president, Nielsen and other administration officials have advocated for stricter immigration enforcement and the construction of border barriers by pointing to what they believe is a humanitarian and national security crisis along the southwestern border.
On Tuesday, McAleenan, the CBP commissioner, said the situation remained at a "breaking point" for U.S. border officials, citing a significant surge in the number of migrant families apprehended near the border in February.
His agency announced Tuesday afternoon that U.S. immigration authorities apprehended more than 76,000 migrants -- including about 36,000 families -- along the U.S.-Mexico border last month, making it the busiest February for border officials in the last 12 years.