Hispanic Dems press Nielsen on family separations

Hispanic Dems press Nielsen on family separations
© Anna Moneymaker

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) walked away unsatisfied Wednesday from a meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenImmigrant advocacy groups seek restraining order to block Trump asylum policy The Hill's Morning Report - Trump faces mounting challenges to emergency declaration 2,000 asylum seekers return home, decide to stay in Mexico: report MORE that was meant to clarify the agency's progress on reunifying families forcibly separated at the U.S. border.

Nielsen's meeting with the CHC mirrored those of former Homeland Security Secretary John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE — now the White House chief of staff — who at times had tense arguments with the group over immigration.

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Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), former head of the CHC, said she was frustrated by Nielsen’s responses, which she characterized as “general platitudes” about shared interests.

“The secretary is very practiced in the art of the non-answer, because we're not getting the specific information we would like to have,” said Sánchez, the vice chair of House Democratic Caucus.

Members pressed Nielsen to provide data on family reunifications, a process ordered by a federal court in California after more than 2,000 children were separated from their parents or guardians starting in April.

The judge overseeing the case said on Tuesday that the administration is on track to reunite all families by the Thursday deadline, something Nielsen mentioned several times during the CHC meeting.

"She used wording that is to me, vague,” said Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezActing Defense chief calls Graham an 'ally' after tense exchange William Barr is right man for the times This week: Trump delivers State of the Union amid wall fight MORE (D-N.J.). “She said, 'I think we are on track.' Well, on track means you would have reunited all of those families tomorrow, as the court ordered.”

"I don't believe we're on track," he added.

According to the court's numbers, 1,012 of the 1,637 parents identified as eligible had been reunified with their children as of Tuesday. But the CHC raised questions about more than 400 parents who have been deported, leaving their children in the United States.

"She said that those parents voluntarily gave up their right to take their children with them, that they voluntarily left them here," said Sen. Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoSchumer urging ex-congressional candidate Amy McGrath to run against McConnell Mark Kelly launches Senate bid in Arizona Former McCain chief of staff says he will not run for Senate in Arizona in 2020 MORE (D-Nev.).

"That is misinformation,” Cortez Masto added. “My biggest concern is that those parents with the language barrier had no idea what was going on. They're not represented by legal counsel, I'm not even sure they knew what they were doing before they were deported.”

Unlike criminal proceedings, people facing deportation do not have the right to a court-appointed attorney. That's left many would-be asylum seekers representing themselves in complex legal matters, often in a language they don't speak.

The Trump administration has drawn severe criticism on that point by, in some cases, forcing young children to represent themselves in immigration court.

"I appreciate that she admitted that children cannot learn immigration law, although she did allude to the fact that children should have an adult with them, as if that's going to help," said Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

“Today’s meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus consisted of a productive and frank conversation about our broken immigration system,” Nielsen said in a statement after the meeting. “I discussed our reunification efforts and my many efforts to systemically address illegal immigration pull and push factors and to work with the governments of Mexico, the Northern Triangle and international organizations on the later.”

CHC members said they were irked at Nielsen's admission that immigration hard-liners in the administration like senior White House aide Stephen Miller played an important role in writing the department's policies.

"Stephen Miller was actually involved in developing the zero tolerance policy, and folks from the White House were basically directing it, not necessarily Department of Justice," said Rep. Jimmy GomezJimmy GomezDem lawmakers call for FBI probe into Trump golf clubs' hiring of undocumented immigrants Trump will give State of Union to sea of opponents Dem lawmaker to bring former Trump property undocumented worker to State of the Union MORE (D-Calif.).

The meeting was generally calm, but tempers flared when Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) accused Nielsen of enforcing racist policies.

"I think the secretary of Homeland Security is at the head of the most ruthless, vicious, racist division of the Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff urges GOP colleagues to share private concerns about Trump publicly US-China trade talks draw criticism for lack of women in pictures Overnight Defense: Trump to leave 200 troops in Syria | Trump, Kim plan one-on-one meeting | Pentagon asks DHS to justify moving funds for border wall MORE administration," said Gutiérrez. "She is the one that is implementing programs that is ripping children from their mothers and causing irreparable harm.”

In the meeting, Gutiérrez confronted Nielsen, describing the administration's immigration policies as a "crime against humanity."

"I told her in a very unvarnished way that that is what she is doing and she should know that she is not following the law and she is crippling our community and destroying our community," Gutiérrez told reporters after the meeting.

"I want to make clear, I'm not a racist," replied Nielsen, according to people in the room.

But both CHC members and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) staff said the meetings are productive and will continue.

Still, CHC members expressed concern over how DHS is funding its increased detention and enforcement actions.

"They're taking 1 percent of all other operations in order to pay for the beds,” said Gomez. “So the money that's supposed to be used for actually making our community safer, protecting the border, is shifting to buying more beds.”

Rep. Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoDem lawmaker: 'Trump's presidency is the real national emergency' Poll shows McSally, Kelly tied in Arizona Senate race Mark Kelly launches Senate bid in Arizona MORE (D-Ariz.) said that during the meeting Nielsen informed CHC members that that her agency has a full accounting of separated families, and that children and parents in those families are aware of their respective whereabouts.

Gallego disputed that and accused the administration of incompetence in enforcing its zero tolerance policy.

"This is a CYA operation — cover your ass — because they messed up so bad they did not have a plan to deal with family separations," said Gallego.

"They didn't go into this with a proper exit plan, and they basically thought that this was going to end very quickly because somehow Congress would just roll over and give them everything they wanted," he added.

Mike Lillis contributed to this story