Nielsen cites ‘hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe’ at bor­der

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Michael D. Shear

WASH­ING­TON – 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 Trump’s call for a 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.

“Our ca­pac­ity is al­ready se­verely strained, but these in­creases will over­whelm the sys­tem en­tirely,” Nielsen told mem­bers of the House Home­land Se­cu­rity Com­mit­tee. “This is not a man­u­fac­tured cri­sis. This is truly an emer­gency.”

Democrats de­manded that Nielsen ad­dress the chaos that fol­lowed 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.

Rep. Ben­nie Thomp­son, D-Miss., the com­mit­tee’s chair­man, said he hoped Nielsen would not sim­ply par­rot Trump’s as­ser­tions about how a bor­der wall would pre­vent a cri­sis.

“The sec­re­tary can choose whether to be com­plicit in this ad­min­is­tra­tion’s mis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign,” Thomp­son said, “or she can cor­rect the record.”

In her pre­pared re­marks, Nielsen echoed Trump’s re­peated claims that the United States is ea­ger to wel­come im­mi­grants who ar­rive legally, and granted asy­lum and refugee sta­tus to more in­di­vid­u­als in 2017 than any other coun­try in the world.

Democrats were ex­pected to chal­lenge Nielsen on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to dra­mat­i­cally slow down the en­try of le­gal im­mi­grants.

Crit­ics say that the surge of fam­i­lies try­ing to en­ter the United States 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.

Asked by Thomp­son if mi­grant fam­i­lies have been sep­a­rated, and adults de­ported back to their coun­try with­out their chil­dren, Nielsen said yes. She added that those rel­a­tives are given the op­tion to re­turn to their coun­try with their chil­dren.

“To the best of my knowl­edge, every par­ent was af­forded that op­tion,” Nielsen said.

Rep. Kath­leen Rice, D-N.Y., pressed Nielsen on whether she had sup­ported the pol­icy.

“We do have the le­gal au­thor­ity to do it, as I un­der­stand,” Nielsen said. She added that she dis­cussed the zero tol­er­ance pol­icy with then-At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions be­fore he an­nounced it.

“Were you aware the zero tol­er­ance pol­icy would lead to mi­nors be­ing sep­a­rated from their par­ents?” Rice asked.

“As a con­se­quence for a par­ent go­ing to jail, we in this coun­try do not take the chil­dren to jail,” Nielsen re­sponded. “I take that as a yes,” Rice said. Rep. Lau­ren Un­der­wood, D-Ill., the com­mit­tee’s vice chair, asked Nielsen whether she knew of the im­pact fam­ily sep­a­ra­tion would have on the health of chil­dren.

“Tear­ing kids and their par­ents apart is im­moral, ma’am,” said Un­der­wood, a trained nurse. “It’s un-Amer­i­can and it’s just plain wrong.”

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.

Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion data re­leased on Tues­day 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.

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 Nielsen 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. And on Wed­nes­day, Nielsen made clear she would not stray very far from the pres­i­dent’s anti-im­mi­grant rhetoric.

“To­day’s mi­grant flows have cre­ated a hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe,” Nielsen said in her open­ing re­marks, cit­ing the vi­o­lence mi­grants face on their way to the bor­der.

“Smug­glers and traf­fick­ers are forc­ing mi­grants into in­hu­man con­di­tions, de­mand­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary sums of money and putting their lives in dan­ger.” she said. “And vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions – es­pe­cially chil­dren – are com­ing into DHS cus­tody sicker than ever be­fore.”

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