Written by Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Michael D. Shear
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 Donald 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, 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.
“This is a crisis — pure and simple — and we need to respond accordingly,” Nielsen said in a prepared statement that was released before the start of the hearing in front of the House Homeland Security Committee. “We cannot stand idly by as our border security is further compromised and our immigration laws are exploited.”
Democrats on the congressional panel earlier said they would demand that Nielsen address the chaos that followed from the family separation decision, the deaths of migrant children in federal custody and Trump’s claim of a national emergency at the border that he has said requires construction of a border wall.
In her opening remarks, Nielsen echoed the repeated claims of Trump that the United States is eager to welcome immigrants who arrive legally.
In 2017, she said, “the U.S. granted asylum and refugee status to more individuals than any other country in the world.” The crisis, she insisted, is a surge in illegal immigrants trying to cross into the United States.
However, Democrats are likely to challenge Nielsen on the efforts by the administration to dramatically slow down the entry of legal immigrants. Critics say that the surge of families trying to enter the country 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.
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.
She did not directly respond in her opening statement to the practice of separating migrant families apprehended at the border, including how the tactic was developed and who in the administration was responsible for pushing it.
Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., a nurse and the vice chairwoman of the committee, said she intended to hold Nielsen accountable for decisions of the department, which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“The items that are top of the line for me are the family separation policy,” Underwood said. “It’s either she was negligent, unaware or knew the effects on the children. None of those options are acceptable.”
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, 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 Trump, facing enormous public pressure, signed an executive order meant to end the policy.
Nielsen is likely to highlight data that Customs and Border Protection released Tuesday, which 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. She is also expected to describe recent changes to the medical care the agency offers migrants.
For much of her tenure, Nielsen has been the subject of Trump’s ire over illegal immigration and border security.
Throughout much of 2018, 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 Nielsen for telling him that his ideas to stop immigration would be illegal or improper.
In May, Nielsen considered resigning after 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.” 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 Trump wanted to fire 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, Nielsen was a fierce advocate for the wall. In recent weeks, Trump has complimented Nielsen’s work publicly.
The hearing Wednesday comes after tense dialogue between House Democrats and the Department of Homeland Security.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, publicly criticized Nielsen this year for declining to testify in February. A homeland security spokesman has said that Nielsen never declined but rather had a scheduling conflict.