Homeland Security Chief Faces Off With Democrats On Border Crisis

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Updated at 1:37 p.m. ET

Homeland Security acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan says the U.S. has apprehended more than 800,000 migrants attempting to enter the country since last October, calling the numbers staggering and unprecedented, and which “have challenged and overwhelmed every aspect of our border and immigration enforcement system.”

McAleenan is testifying on Capitol Hill Thursday before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, as Democrats step up oversight of an immigration crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border.

He told the panel that fewer than 1,000 children have been separated from their families out of some 450,000 family units that have attempted to cross the border in the current fiscal year.

He said a recently passed package of humanitarian aid has allowed CBP to construct four temporary tent-like shelters to house those placed in detention at the border, alleviating the overcrowding at some CBP facilities. That same money, he testified, resulted the a reduction in the “in-custody population of children from a high of 2,700 to about 350 at the end of the day yesterday.”

He credited Trump administration policies for leading to a 28% reduction in border crossings last month.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., held up pictures of men and children at DHS faculties she said she visited, saying, “This would not be allowed as a kennel for dogs.” But McAleenan said Congress specifically excluded funding for more beds at facilities run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, exacerbating the overcrowded conditions there.

Committee Chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said, “When I see the pictures and I hear the testimony. … I am at a point where I begin to wonder whether there is an empathy defect.”

But McAleenan insisted, “We are taking care of these children.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General released a report on July 2 warning of “dangerous overcrowding” at CBP facilities.

“We are concerned that overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety of DHS agents and officers, and to those detained,” investigators wrote.

On another issue, McAleenan said an investigation is under way into a private Facebook group of CBP agents, some of whom reportedly posted racist and anti-immigrant statements. He said the CBP Office of Professional Responsibility has placed several individuals on administrative duties, issued cease and desist letters and is “moving very quickly to hold people accountable for conduct that doesn’t meet our standards.”

Even as acting homeland security secretary, McAleenan is still formally commissioner for Customs and Border Protection (Mark Morgan is serving as the acting commissioner). McAleenan began serving as the CBP commissioner in March 2018 before being elevated as the acting head of homeland security in April.

The former homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, resigned from the post April 7 following a turbulent tenure at the post, and McAleenan was named as her replacement that day.

What lawmakers want

Cummings said ahead of the hearing that he wants McAleenan to explain the Trump administration’s child separation policy and its treatment of immigrants.

“I’m very glad he is coming. And I think America needs to hear what he has to say because he’s accountable,” Cummings said. “My aim has always been to show America what is happening and then ask America, ‘Is this what you believe in? Does this reflect your values?’ I believe that if you show it to them and they see it and see children in cages and they see how they’re treated and they hear the testimony of members of Congress and others, that they will take the appropriate action.”

The ranking Republican for the House oversight committee, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, said McAleenan will likely touch on delays getting emergency, supplemental border aid from Congress. On Wednesday, McAleenan was visiting McAllen, Texas, for a close-up view of the CBP’s largest immigration detention center.

Jordan said McAleenan will touch on his experience on that trip and his nearly 20 years as a CBP official to his testimony.

“I think Secretary McAleenan is going to talk about what they are doing, talk about the fact it would have been nice if 2.5 months ago when the president asked for the supplemental aid to deal with the crisis on the border … if the Democrats would have helped us get the money then instead of saying the crisis was manufactured, it was contrived and when the real crisis got worse, trying to blame the president,” he said.

North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, another member of the House oversight committee, said he advised McAleenan to “be very transparent and very forthcoming” in Thursday’s hearing.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to see what’s being done, what has not being done and candidly what we can do as Congress to alleviate the crisis at the border,” Meadows said. “Not just from a humanitarian standpoint, but certainly from the influx of hundreds of thousands of people that we don’t have the facilities nor the ability to handle properly.”

Cummings says he also wants to know how much the U.S. government is spending on the detention of children, which he said may cost as much as $350 a day.

The Maryland Democrat said while Republicans have accused Democrats of attacking Border Patrol agents, he said that’s not the point. Rather, he wants his panel to get to the bottom of the border crisis.

Battle over border crisis

Thursday’s hearing comes amid a fight between Republicans and Democrats over which policies best deal with the humanitarian crisis at the border. The hearing also comes after dueling White House and congressional visits to evaluate conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border.

On Friday, a group of freshman House Democratic members delivered emotional testimony before the House oversight committee on those concerns. The lawmakers recently traveled with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus July 1 to the border to examine the conditions.

“We do have a crisis at our border, it is one of morality,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., said. “As we have seen this current strategy unfold, intentional and cruelly created by the Trump administration, dead set on sending a hate-filled message that those seeking refuge are not welcome in America, in our America.”

Also on Friday, Vice President Pence and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., led a Republican congressional delegation to a Border Patrol facility in McAllen. The visit delivered dramatic images of more than 300 detained men, some wearing disposable face masks, standing in cramped quarters behind chain-link fences.

“For [Second Lady] Karen [Pence] and me, it was frankly heart breaking, as parents, to talk to young children who told us of having walked two to three months up the Peninsula to cross into our country,” Pence said after the visit to a detention facility. “That has to change.”

This Friday, a bipartisan group of House members, led by Reps. Lloyd Smucker, R-Penn., and Dean Phillips, D-Minn., plan to visit points of entry, a Border Patrol station and a processing center. The group, known as the Problem Solvers Caucus, said they hope the fact-finding mission will lead to new solutions.

“The crisis at the border is one of the most pressing issues facing our nation and must be addressed by Congress,” Smucker said in a statement. “I am hopeful that the Problem Solvers Caucus can once again work together to put forth bipartisan solutions to this critical issue.”

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