Nielsen defends Trump's border emergency declaration

Nielsen defends Trump's border emergency declaration
© Greg Nash

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenOvernight Energy: Mueller report reveals Russian efforts to sow division over coal jobs | NYC passes sweeping climate bill likened to 'Green New Deal' | EPA official says agency may ban asbestos | Energy Dept. denies Perry planning exit The Hill's 12:30 Report: Inside the Mueller report Energy Dept denies report that Rick Perry is planning to leave Trump admin MORE on Wednesday defended President TrumpDonald John TrumpImpeachment? Not so fast without missing element of criminal intent Feds say marijuana ties could prevent immigrants from getting US citizenship Trump approval drops to 2019 low after Mueller report's release: poll 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 ThompsonDe Blasio vows to take Trump to court over sanctuary city proposal The Hill's Morning Report - Waiting on Mueller: Answers come on Thursday Dems rally behind Omar as Trump escalates attacks 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.