Kylie Hunter

The Committee on Homeland Security on Wednesday, March 6, held a hearing, The Way Forward on Border Security. The Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Kirstjen Nielsen was the main witness. Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) opened with remarks observing that since the last time the Committee met was a year ago, the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border and the government shutdown over the wall has occurred in that timeframe. In that time more than 1,000 children have been separated at the border and two small children died in the custody of DHS, Congressman Thompson stated that oversight is overdue.

Ranking Member, Congressman Mike Rogers (R-AL), gave an opening statement in approval of the President’s solution for a wall to “stop the flow of illegal immigration and drugs” into America. “Walls work”, he said. Secretary Nielsen followed up in a similar tone, calling America’s immigration system as being “out of control”. She expressed her support for a more functional system as being merit-based.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX-D) switched gears and wanted to know more about the children detained in America due to the Administration’s immigration enforcement and ultimate practice of separating migrant families. She requested the number of all children detained, the reason why along with other relevant information and asked that it be submitted to the Committee. Nielsen responded that she would be happy to provide only some pieces of the requested information because a lot of it is protected.

Secretary Nielson testified that the main challenge in the immigration process is the inability of DHS to keep families together. She remarked that the Flores settlement agreement impedes the ability to maintain custody of minors and enforce the laws.(The Flores agreement prohibits long term incarceration of children) Representative Peter King (R-NY), expressed his concern for the unaccompanied minors who are coming to the U.S. through connections with the gang MS-13, a group that has been featured in many of the President speeches. Secretary Nielsen touched on America’s current immigration policies and the inability to send unaccompanied minors back to their country of origin. She said that officials in Central America want their children to come home but policy will not allow for it.

Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (D-IL) asked Secretary Nielsen a series of questions pertaining to the trauma that children endure when separated from their parents. Secretary Nielsen had never heard of toxic stress, but did know that the separation causes trauma and stress. She also said that much of the trauma occurs on the journey, not necessarily at the separation.

Representative Mark Green (R-TN) expressed his concern surrounding the opioid epidemic. He noted that hundreds of people die each week from heroine overdose and that 90% of the heroine comes over the Mexican border. He believes that the Committee should be asking for data dating back to even before Mr. Trump’s presidency.

Congresswoman Nanette Barragán (D-CA) wanted to know the number of children that have died so far this year in the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Secretary Nielsen said that so far in 2019, three children have died in CBP custody. Her counter arguments calling the border situation a crisis and emergency was reinforced by Committee Republicans throughout the hearing. She also rejected suggestions that family seperation was a strategy on immigration enforcement but Congressman Thompson emphasized to Secretary Nielson that “no amount of verbal gymnastics will change that she knew the Trump administration was implementing a policy to separate families at the border.”

Late on Friday, Judge Dana Sabraw from California’s southern district once again intervened and allowed the widening of a current legal action forcing the reunification of families that have been seperated. The Judge, in 2018, held the government accountable for the seperations and forced them to reunify many of the families. He said on Friday that the numbers of families seperated is now much larger than the government had acknowledged last year. Further legal action will come from this ruling that will now cover more children and families separated.

About the Author:

John Sciamanna is CWLA's Vice President of Public Policy.

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