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 NielsenThe Seila Law case: Liberty and political firing Hillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 Sen. Kennedy slams acting DHS secretary for lack of coronavirus answers 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) MenendezSenate Dems request briefing on Russian bounty wire transfers Democratic senator proposes sanctions against Putin over bounties GOP lawmakers voice support for Israeli plan to annex areas in West Bank 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 MastoSenators press IRS chief on stimulus check pitfalls Klobuchar withdraws from Biden VP contention OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Interior faces legal scrutiny for keeping controversial acting leaders in office | White House faces suit on order lifting endangered species protections | Lawmakers seek investigation of Park Police after clearing of protesters 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 GomezThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: CDC predicts US death toll could reach 145,000 by July 11; Premier President Michael Alkire says more resiliency needed in health supply chain Hillicon Valley: Senate Republicans, DOJ target Section 230 | Facial recognition under the spotlight | Zoom launches E2E encrypted beta House Democrat presses Amazon on facial recognition business 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 TrumpTrump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP Trump to hold outdoor rally in New Hampshire on Saturday Eighty-eight years of debt pieties 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 GallegoHouse panel votes to limit Trump's Germany withdrawal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - As virus concerns grow, can it get worse for Trump? Latino man's death in Tucson fuels debate over police brutality on Hispanics 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