Nielsen testifies: Five things you need to know

Nielsen testifies: Five things you need to know
© Stefani Reynolds

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenActing DHS secretary says he expects Russia to attempt to interfere in 2020 elections House Homeland Security rip DHS's 'unacceptable' failure to comply with subpoena Trump puts Kushner in charge of overseeing border wall construction: report MORE endured a grilling Wednesday during a contentious hearing on border security with the House Homeland Security Committee.

Nielsen defended President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Don Lemon explains handling of segment after Trump criticism NPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' Lawyer says Parnas can't attend Senate trial due to ankle bracelet MORE’s decision to declare a national emergency at the southern border and faced rigorous questioning over the administration’s handling of asylum claims and family separations.

The public hearing was Nielsen’s first in front of the new Democratic majority, her first since Trump’s emergency declaration, and came one day after the government released data that showed a spike in apprehensions and denials of people attempting to enter the United States in February.

Here are five key moments.

Nielsen: Border is an emergency

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Nielsen repeatedly told lawmakers that the president was justified in declaring a national emergency, warning that an influx of migrants could “overwhelm” the immigration system.

“This is a legitimate national emergency,” Nielsen told Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerRepublicans, Democrats offer support after John Lewis cancer diagnosis House GOP vows to use impeachment to cut into Democratic majority A solemn impeachment day on Capitol Hill MORE (R-N.C.). “This is a twin crisis, and we can do better as a country. We have to have a system where we can protect vulnerable populations. We can secure our border, which is our sovereign responsibility. We can protect communities while facilitating legal trade and travel.”

She said the increase in migrants has led to a surge in human and drug trafficking and violence, creating a humanitarian and national security crisis.

Democrats pressed Nielsen on whether the situation genuinely constituted an emergency, saying government statistics and the president’s own words suggest otherwise.

Committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonMississippi governor calls for reform after prison deaths: 'I've seen enough' Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — NFL social media accounts hacked | Dem questions border chief over controversial Facebook group | Clinton says Zuckerberg has 'authoritarian' views Democrat questions new border chief's involvement in Facebook group with racist, sexist posts MORE (D-Miss.) noted that Trump himself said he “didn’t need to” issue the executive order.

Nielsen suggested Trump meant he wouldn’t have had to declare an emergency to construct a border wall if Congress had met his funding requests.

More than 70,000 people were apprehended or turned away at the border in February, a recent record but still well below the high mark in the early 2000s.

Dems hammer over family separations

Democrats ripped Nielsen over the administration’s policy of separating parents from their children, with some seeking to pin her down over the government’s use of cages to hold detained migrant children.

Rep. Bonnie Watson ColemanBonnie Watson ColemanAllegations of bed bugs at Trump's Doral resort swarm Twitter A dozen House Democrats call on EU ambassador to resign amid Ukraine scandal Democrats seize on viral Sharpie hashtags to mock Trump map edit MORE (D-N.J.) asked Nielsen how the chain-link enclosures used to contain young migrants differed from “the cages you put your dogs in when you let them stay outside.”

“It’s larger,” Nielsen responded. “It has facilities. It provides room to sit, to stand, to lay down.”

Separately, Nielsen told Thompson that the government doesn’t “use cages for children,” arguing the enclosures were being unfairly described as such.

“We’re not going to go through the semantics,” Thompson said. “Now, I saw the ... fences that were made as cages. And you did, too. If it’s a bad policy then change it, but don’t mislead the committee.”

Rep. Kathleen RiceKathleen Maura RiceHouse Dems demand answers regarding holding of Iranian-Americans at border Buttigieg picks up third congressional endorsement from New York lawmaker Democratic lawmaker introduces bill to tackle online terrorist activity MORE (D-N.Y.) pushed Nielsen on her role in family separations, asking whether she had agreed to use separations as a deterrent, rather than just a consequence of the Justice Department "zero tolerance" policy.

Nielsen refused to answer directly but said she “concurred with their assessment on what to do to increase consequences for those crossing the border illegally.”

Under the zero tolerance policy, all adults who crossed the border for the first time were referred to the Justice Department for prosecution, mandating the separation of parents and children traveling together.

GOP presses need for increased border security

Nielsen’s appearance took place in the shadow of a debate over Trump’s emergency declaration, which the Senate appears ready to block.

That will set up a veto by Trump, and it does not appear the votes are there to override the president in the House.

Republicans at the hearing underscored the need for Trump’s action give the state of the border, with one lawmaker making a comparison to D-Day.

“73,000 American troops landed in the D-Day invasion,” said Rep. Clay HigginsGlen (Clay) Clay HigginsThe five dumbest things said about impeachment so far House GOP criticizes impeachment drive as distracting from national security issues VA under pressure to ease medical marijuana rules MORE (R-La.). “We have 76,103, according to my numbers, apprehensions along our southern border last month. We have D-Day every month on our southern border.”

Higgins and other Republicans repeatedly said the border could not be protected with technology and personnel alone and that barriers were needed.

“Can you just take one of those away?” Rep. Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawO'Rourke says he'll focus on flipping Texas state House in 2020 House GOP criticizes impeachment drive as distracting from national security issues Saagar Enjeti: Crenshaw's conservatism will doom future of GOP MORE (R-Texas) asked at one point.

“No, sir,” Nielsen replied.

She later said the agency was on pace to apprehend more than 900,000 undocumented immigrants this year.

Dem blasts Nielsen over asylum laws

The most contentious exchange came when Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.) asked Nielsen whether asylum-seekers were ever turned away from ports of entry by Customs and Border Protection agents, which would be illegal under asylum laws.

“They are not turned away,” Nielsen said.

“Let me tell you, madam secretary, either you are lying to this committee or you don't know what's happening at the border,” Barragán replied, brushing aside Nielsen's attempts to respond.

“You said that you waited to give direction on the family separation policy because you wanted to do it with compassion. Do you know how outrageous that sounds?" asked Barragán, without waiting for a response from Nielsen.

Immigration activists flock to Congress 

A large number of immigration activists were at the Capitol Wednesday protesting everything from family separations to a failure to legislate a path to citizenship for "Dreamers" — people who were brought to the United States illegally or stayed illegally as children.

A coalition of groups supporting Dreamers — undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children — and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) beneficiaries met with Congressional Hispanic Caucus members before the hearing.

Under TPS, nationals of foreign countries undergoing man-made or natural disasters are allowed to live and work in the United States. The Trump administration has worked to eliminate as many countries from TPS as possible, but its efforts have been slowed down in the courts.

Assistant Speaker Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) complimented the administration for following a court order to maintain TPS benefits until the courts emit their final sentences.

“It shows that we can get work done together,” he said.

Most Democrats were not as complimentary.

“Unfortunately, Secretary Nielsen has not acted in the best faith in the past when she's testified in front of Congress or even in her meetings with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus,” said Rep. Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroThe Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power Warren campaign hires two top Castro staffers Democrats press Trump administration to stop DNA collection from detained migrants MORE (D-Texas), the group’s chairman.