Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen vehemently defended her agency’s actions at the southern border on Wednesday while fending off criticism from Democrats who accused her of misleading lawmakers about the facilities used to house underage migrants.
“What is a chain-link fence enclosed into a chamber on a concrete floor represent to you? Is that a cage?” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) asked Nielsen at one point during a hearing for the House Homeland Security Committee.
“It is a detention space, ma’am, that you know has existed for decades,” the secretary replied.
“Does it differ from the cages you put your dogs in when you let them stay outside? Is it different?” Watson Coleman asked.
“Yes,” Nielsen said. “It’s larger, it has facilities, it provides room to sit, to stand, to lay down.”
Watson Coleman fired back: “So did my dog’s cage.”
Nielsen’s appearance on Wednesday was the first before the House Homeland Security panel since Democrats took control of the chamber in January. During her appearance, she said that in her estimation, undocumented immigration was “simply spiraling out of control,” but said once again her agency had no official policy when it came to separating parents from their children at the border.
The notion of cages came up several times throughout the day, referencing detention centers that housed underage migrant children separated from their families last year at the beginning of the White House’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Photos from inside the Customs and Border Protection centers caused an uproar at the time.
“Sir, we don’t use cages for children,” Nielsen shot back at Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) when he used the word. The pair continued to debate about the phrasing before Thompson noted he’d seen the facilities himself.
“I’ve seen the cages,” the lawmaker said. “I just want you to admit that the cages exist.”
During another fiery exchange, Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), asked several pointed questions related to the mental health of children separated at the border.
“When you officially began family separation … were you aware of researching showing it causes trauma that can do both immediate and long-term damage to children’s health,” Underwood, a registered nurse, asked.
“The information that i was aware of at the time was that the trauma was part of the journey to come up to the border illegally,” Nielsen replied.
The secretary grew frustrated at times, telling Underwood at one point that lawmakers in Congress were to blame for a lack of legislation to “fix the system.”
“Families need to put together, children should never be put in this situation,” the secretary said. “We need to fix the system so that they’re not. …We are talking about 2,000 children that resulted from their parents choosing to break the law.”
Nielsen has maintained her fierce support for Trump’s hardline immigration policies, even amid a wave of reports at the end of last year that the president had decided to fire her. Trump often blames the DHS over his failed border security efforts, and has reportedly chastised Nielsen during cabinet meetings.
The agency released a terse statement in November saying she was “committed” to her role and the “security-focused agenda to protect Americans from all threats.”
But the secretary was an ardent advocate for Trump’s border wall during the 35-day partial government shutdown that ended earlier this year, and The New York Times notes her standing within the White House has since improved.
She continued to espouse similar talking points on Wednesday, calling the southern border a “legitimate national emergency.”
“We need a barrier,” Nielsen told lawmakers. “We cannot take operational control with out.”