Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Wednesday that the U.S. was working on an agreement with Central American countries to crack down on migration, human trafficking and so-called caravans of migrants and refugees as she faced fierce criticism from Democrats about the separations of children from their parents at the border.
The U.S. was expecting to sign “a historic regional compact” with Northern Triangle countries to “counter irregular migration, human smuggling, trafficking and the formation of caravans” in March, Nielsen said during her first congressional appearance since Democrats won the House in the midterm elections.
Last month, Nielsen traveled to Central America to meet with officials from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to discuss migration and regional security issues.
During an at-times tense hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee, Nielsen faced pointed questions from Democratic lawmakers about the family separations, President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border and a policy of forcing some migrants to wait in Mexico after seeking asylum in the U.S.
Lawmakers repeatedly criticized Nielsen over her statements that the Trump administration did not have “a policy” of separating migrant families, despite then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announcing the “zero tolerance” policy last spring. Under that directive, migrant adults who crossed the border illegally faced prosecution, leading to them being separated from their children.
“No amount of verbal gymnastics will change that she knew the Trump administration was implementing a policy to separate families at the border,” Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said of Nielsen.
Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., asked Nielsen: “Were you aware that the zero tolerance policy would lead to minors being separated from their parents? Yes or no?”
“As a consequence for a parent going to jail, we in this country do not take the children to jail,” Nielsen responded.
Rice said she took Nielsen’s response “as a yes.”
Later, Nielsen repeated there was never a family separations policy, prompting Rice to heatedly respond: "When you knew that that policy was going to result in children having to be taken away from their parents. That is a policy. You should admit it."
Rice also asked if there had ever been a separated parent deported without finding out if the parent wanted their children deported with them.
“To the best of my knowledge, every parent was afforded that option,” Nielsen said.
But as part of a class-action lawsuit, it was revealed that hundreds of parents were deported without their children under the policy last spring, and lawyers have since been working to contact those parents to advise them of their right to be reunified.
In June, a federal judge ordered the reunification of more than 2,700 children who were separated from their parents under the policy. Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union are now pressing for the government to reunite potentially thousands of children who were separated before the policy’s official announcement.
During Wednesday's hearing, Nielsen also said the administration's goal was to expand its recent policy of forcing some migrants to return to Tijuana while they await asylum hearings in the U.S. "across the border." Officials said last week the policy would be expanding beyond Tijuana in the coming weeks.
Nielsen defended Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border, saying it was not a “manufactured crisis.”
During her opening remarks, she said immigration officials saw a 30 percent increase in February of migrants crossing the southern border, adding that at the current pace the U.S. was on track to encounter one million migrants at this year.
She also defended the president’s incorrect remarks that there were never “so many apprehensions ever in history,” saying that “in some places, we have had record months of families.”
Her testimony comes a day after Customs and Border Protection released data showing about 76,000 migrants without the proper documentation to enter the U.S. either presented themselves at legal ports of entry or were apprehended by Border Patrol.
Officials said it was the highest total for February since 2007. Still, it did not set an overall record for border traffic. Before 2008, monthly border crossings were consistently over 100,000, and were higher than 200,000 per month in 2000.