'We're better than that': Leading Democrat rips Homeland Security head over Trump's child separation policy

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Democrats blamed the Trump administration, Republicans blamed Democrats and the Department of Homeland Security blamed Congress for what all parties agreed, at a tense and sometimes contentious hearing on Thursday, was an intractable crisis on the U.S. border with Mexico.

The day’s sole witness at the House Oversight Committee hearing was Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. While he is not the architect of the Trump administration’s policy of detaining asylum seekers, McAleenan is now its top executor. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, the two agencies largely responsible for handling the flow of Central American migrants into the United States, are under his jurisdiction.

In his opening remarks, McAleenan acknowledged that conditions at the border had become “unprecedented and unsustainable,” adding that what was taking place was “nothing short of a border security and humanitarian crisis.” While the most potent images from that crisis have been of children in cage-like detention facilities, legislators and journalists have documented other shocking details, including detainees allegedly being told to drink toilet water and obscene and offensive social media posts by border agents.

Committee Chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, right, challenges acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan at a hearing on the Trump administration's child separation policy. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The hearing reached its emotional crescendo as the committee’s chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., delivered a furious indictment of the Trump administration, accusing it of an “empathy deficit.” As the two began to argue over whether Homeland Security has adequately kept track of parents and children in a unified database (it has not, according to multiple reports), McAleenan’s explanations seemed to only anger Cummings further. “These are human beings,” he said at one point. “Human beings, just trying to live a better life.”

Growing increasingly outraged, Cummings spoke of “a child sitting in their own feces,” referencing some of the more dire reports from the border. “Come on, man,” Cummings said, his voice quavering. “What’s that about? None of us would have our children in that position.”

Cummings said that the trauma of detention would linger with the children long after they were released back to their parents. So would the collective trauma, Democrats have warned, of Trump’s hard-line policies. “We are the United States of America, we are the greatest country in the world,” he said, adding a little later, “We’re better than that.”

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Even as he was repeatedly challenged by Cummings and his fellow Democrats, McAleenan tried to make the case that he was hamstrung by law, repeatedly challenging Congress to change policy by, in effect, doing its job. Congress did recently pass a bill approving $4.59 billion in border-related funding, but only after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi managed to fend off the progressive wing of the Democratic conference that wanted the funding to come with stronger protections for migrants.

At the same time, McAleenan did not shy away from praising what he called the “extraordinary humanitarian actions” of border agents. And he very carefully defended the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents.

“This is in the interest of the child,” he said, asserting that such separations now take place only if parents were suspected of criminal activity, or if the children were believed to be the victims of human trafficking (President Trump is fond of invoking the image of merciless traffickers, or “coyotes,” in his statements about the border). Immigration advocates have challenged the reasons for continuing to separate children from families.

Democrats were unconvinced. They frequently resorted to moral appeals, as opposed to policy arguments, making the case that the Trump administration’s immigration policy was beneath American ideals.

Rep. Jackie Speier questioning acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

“We can't treat people like this,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., as she showed photographs from her recent visit to the border. For his part, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., asked McAleenan a simple question: “Are you a dad?” McAleenan acknowledged that he was. The exchange came days after another Oversight hearing, one at which a Guatemalan mother, Yazmin Juárez, testified about the death of her 19-month-old daughter after a harrowing several weeks in U.S. custody at the border.

McAleenan made the case that U.S. officials had simply been overwhelmed at the border, with what he said were more than 800,000 individuals attempting to enter the United States through the border with Mexico since Oct. 1 of last year, 90 percent of them without proper documentation. During that time, he said a total of 300,000 children were apprehended by U.S. authorities.

McAleenan defended his handling of the crisis, reiterating the number of times he had asked Congress for more help. Despite that, he argued, conditions had been improving, especially since the new funding had been approved. He said that only 350 children are presently in U.S. custody, and that most of them spent about a day and a half in detention.

But he placed the blame on lawmakers. “A durable solution to this crisis lies with Congress,” he said, asking for “targeted changes to our immigration laws” and for lawmakers to “eliminate the gaps in our legal framework that incentivize families and children to take this dangerous journey.” Moderate members of Congress attempted such a fix in 2013, only to be stifled in their effort by Republican hard liners.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the committee’s ranking member, repeatedly defended McAleenan against Democratic attacks, arguing that the party’s increasingly leftist base had hampered a timely handling of the crisis.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Two of those progressives, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, are members of the Oversight Committee and took turns questioning McAleenan.

“Did you consider the dehumanizing effect on the officers, specifically, in child separation, in forcing them to take children away from their parents?” Ocasio-Cortez wondered.

“Enforcing the law often has emotional impacts,” McAleenan acknowledged.

Ocasio-Cortez also asked McAleenan if the president had asked him to close the border entirely to asylum seekers in exchange for a pardon, should he face prosecution for doing so. McAleenan did not answer the question directly, though he said Trump had not asked him to do anything “unlawful.”

During a break in the hearing, Rep. Tlaib told Yahoo News that Democrats were not to blame, nor were the widely recognized imperfections in the nation’s immigration framework.

“Let’s recognize there’s a crisis, and that’s the separation policy,” Tlaib said.

She described touring the border with a high-level U.S. official who made a frank admission: “It’s not working.”

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan with immigration policy protesters. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

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