Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified in front of Congress on Wednesday, answering for her execution of the Trump administration’s widely criticized immigration policies. The committee questioned Nielsen on Trump’s family separation policies, reports of abuse in immigration detention facilities, and reports that children were possibly being permanently separated from parents who were being deported.
Nielsen’s responses seemed to indicate that the secretary was either not aware of the severity of the treatment of migrants in the United States — particularly children — or she was intentionally giving misleading answers to obfuscate the endless reports of abuse against Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol.
When asked by Homeland Security Chair Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS) if she was “aware of family members who have been separated from their children and deported back to a country without their children,” Nielsen responded that she was aware. But, she added a caveat, implying that it was entirely the choice of the family members being deported to leave their children in the United States.
“There was no parent who has been deported to my knowledge without multiple opportunities to take their children with them,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen’s statement directly contradicts multiple news reports detailing traumatic deportations of parents who were separated from their children at the border and may never be reunited.
Later, when being questioned by Representative Lauren Underwood, about the research showing that family separation can be traumatizing for children, Nielsen again claimed to be unaware of the specific effects of Trump’s zero-tolerance policies. Nielsen’s response led Representative Underwood to declare that she was unsure “if DHS was so negligent they didn’t know how traumatic family separation was for children, or if they knew and did it anyway.”
Representatives asked her about reports of children being held in cramped enclosures surrounded by chain-link fences — which Nielsen insisted weren’t cages. Representative Thompson then asked her to tell him what they were. “They are areas of the border facility that are carved out for the safety and protection of those who remain there while they’re being processed,” Nielsen responded.
Exchanges like this continued between members of the congressional committee and Nielsen. The secretary continuously avoided questions or responded with claims of ignorance, and many of the exchanges were tense.
Representative Nanette Barragán (D-CA) had one of the most impassioned moments at the hearing. After berating Nielsen for what was happening at the border, citing examples from her own trip to witness what was taking place, Barragán asked Nielsen the question that seemed to outline the purpose of the hearing:
“You said you waited to give direction on how to implement the zero-tolerance policy, because you wanted to do it with compassion,” Representative Barragán said. “Do you know how outrageous that sounds? You wanted to separate children and families and you wanted to do it with compassion?”
“You have no feeling, no compassion, no empathy here,” Representative Barragán followed up.
Other lines of questioning included the legitimacy of Trump’s border wall, and the medical procedures available to migrants who are detained. (She claimed that the agency is working to improve medical treatment, and insisted that Trump’s national emergency was fueled by a “legitimate crisis.”)
Nielsen’s hearing on Wednesday is one of four expected to be conducted by Congress about Trump’s immigration policies, according to CBS News. The hearings closely follow the reports on the deaths of three migrant children detained by CBP under the age of 10, a 24-year-old Honduran woman who delivered a stillborn after going into premature birth, the detention of 16 infants under the age of one, and documents that reveal over 1,500 migrant children were sexually abused while they were detained.