Nielsen defends Trump's border emergency declaration

Nielsen defends Trump's border emergency declaration
© Greg Nash

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTrump says acting Homeland Security chief McAleenan will step down Activists to demonstrate at ICE headquarters after Cameroonian immigrant dies in custody Ex-Citizenship and Immigration Services chief returns to DHS in different role MORE on Wednesday defended President TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness school deans call for lifting country-specific visa caps Bolton told ex-Trump aide to call White House lawyers about Ukraine pressure campaign: report Federal prosecutors in New York examining Giuliani business dealings with Ukraine: report MORE's assessment that the situation at the southern border constitutes a national emergency, telling lawmakers that an extended influx in migrants could "overwhelm" the immigration system.

Nielsen testified before the House Homeland Security Committee that illegal immigration "is spiraling out of control and threatening public safety and national security." 

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"Although we may disagree on solutions, I hope there can be a consensus that the current system isn’t working and that this is an emergency," Nielsen said in her opening statement.

Pressed by Democrats  on whether the situation genuinely required Trump's emergency declaration, she painted a dire picture of the consequences of an increase in migrants seeking to cross the southern border, arguing that it has led to a surge in human trafficking and violence.

Nielsen testified that the department is on pace to apprehend nearly 1 million illegal immigrants along the southern border this year.

Questioned on whether she has given Trump the grounds for declaring an emergency to build border barriers, Nielsen said she's presented the president with facts from those on the border.

"I give him the operations reality," she said. "Here’s what we’re facing, here's what we’re seeing, here are the facts. By my read of it, it is an emergency."

Committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHillicon Valley: Democrats seize on whistleblower complaint to push for election security | Google taps GOP Senate aide to lead lobbying | Warren calls for congressional tech office Democrats seize on whistleblower report to push for election security House Homeland Security chairman: 'This is election interference' MORE (D-Miss.) expressed skepticism in his opening statement about the administration's assessment, calling the so-called border crisis a "nonexistent emergency."

"The president wants to build a wall so there is something to point to, or have his picture taken in front of, to convince the American people he has border security figured out," Thompson said.

He cited Trump's own comments that he "didn't need to" declare an emergency, but did so to speed up the process of funding a wall.

Nielsen later defended those remarks, telling the panel that the president meant it didn't have to come to an emergency declaration if Congress had met his funding requests.

Trump's emergency declaration has been a source of fierce debate in Congress since he issued it last month.

Democrats have maintained that no such emergency exists, based on government data that shows a decline in border apprehensions over the years, while some GOP lawmakers have expressed concerns about Trump's use of executive authority to skirt Congress to secure funding for a border wall.

A bill blocking the emergency has passed the House last week and is likely to pass the Senate in a vote next week, setting Trump up to issue the first veto of his presidency.

Nielsen's testimony on border security has been weeks in the making, and came a day after the government released data that showed a spike in apprehensions and denials of people attempting to enter the United States in February. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data showed that 66,450 people were apprehended after crossing the border between ports of entry in February, compared to 47,986 the previous month.

--This report was updated at 11:46 a.m.