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DHS chief says increased funding needed to avoid more migrant children deaths

Texas migrant facility suspends intake

Washington — The head of the Department of Homeland Security warned lawmakers Wednesday that unless Congress approves more funding to deal with an unprecedented flow of migrant families heading toward the U.S.-Mexico border, it will be difficult for DHS officials to prevent more deaths of migrant children in U.S. custody — which have provoked an outcry among Democrats. 

Five Guatemalan children apprehended by U.S. authorities near the southern border have died since December. On Wednesday, CBS News reported that a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador died in government custody in September. Her death had not been previously disclosed. 

During a hearing in which he was grilled by some Democrats who sit on the House Homeland Security Committee, Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan said the deaths of these migrant children in recent months are happening because the "crisis is exceeding the resources provided." 

"That's why we've asked for more," he told lawmakers. "And we've asked for more authority to deal with it to prevent this crisis from happening in the first place and from the children being put at risk."

As McAleenan explained that DHS — which oversees the border patrol units that encounter migrants between and at ports of entry — has been using the funding allocated by Congress for fiscal year 2019 and ramping up efforts to provide housing and medical care to migrants, he was interrupted by Illinois freshman Rep. Lauren Underwood, a former nurse. 

"But people keep dying, sir," she interjected. "So obviously this is more than a question of resources."

Congress Homeland Security
House Homeland Security Committee chairman Bennie Thompson, D- Miss., left, speaks with Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 22, 2019, after the House Homeland Security Committee on budget. Carolyn Kaster / AP

The exchange between McAleenan and Underwood become more tense after the Illinois Democrat continued her line of questioning. "At this point, with five kids that have died, 5,000 separated from their families, I feel like — and the evidence is really — clear that this is intentional," she told the acting secretary. "It's a policy choice being made on purpose by this administration — and it's cruel and inhumane."

Underwood's statement quickly caused an uproar among Republicans in the room, while McAleenan called it an "appalling accusation." After some back-and-forth, lawmakers voted to strike down Underwood's comments.

Since the December deaths of Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, and Felipe Gómez Alonzo, 8, in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody, three more migrant children who were apprehended near the southern border have died. The most recent death, that of 16-year-old Carlos Hernandez Vásquez, has drawn further scrutiny because he spent a week in the custody of CBP, which usually transfers children to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within three days. 

McAleenan was pressed by California Democratic Rep. Nanette Barragán on why his agency did not follow the rule of transferring Hernandez Vásquez to HHS custody within 72 hours of his detention. 

"You just said, Mr. Secretary, you are proud of your record. That is despicable," she said. "You should not be proud of a record of having five children die under your watch."

Allowed to respond to Barragán's statements by a Republican lawmaker, McAleenan said his agency could transfer migrant children to HHS in a more "timely fashion" if Congress approved the Trump administration's $3 billion funding request to expand HHS' housing capacity.

"We would appreciate if Congress would consider it," he added.