clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

DHS Secretary Nielsen struggles to answer basic questions during hearing

The DHS boss couldn’t even say how many people have died in her department’s custody.

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen Testifies Before House Judiciary Committee Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen faced a heated House Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday — and she couldn’t answer a number of basic questions lawmakers asked her about immigration and border security.

The hearing came less than a week after DHS announced that a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl named Jakelin Caal Maquin died in Border Patrol’s custody, and as President Donald Trump is threatening to shut down parts of the federal government unless he receives $5 billion toward a border wall he promised Mexico would pay for. But while Nielsen had good reason to expect tough questions, she seemed unprepared to deal with them.

“You don’t have a number?”

First, Nielsen was unable to answer a question from Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) about exactly many people have died in DHS’s custody.

“Madame Secretary, did I understand you correctly to say that as you sit here today, you do not know how many human beings have died while in custody of the department that you lead, and in preparation for today’s hearing, you didn’t ascertain that number?” Cicilline asked.

“I don’t have an exact figure for you,” Nielsen replied.

“Do you have a rough idea?” Cicilline followed up.

“Sir, what I can tell you is —”

Cicilline cut her off, saying, “I’m talking about people who have died in your custody. You don’t have the number?”

“I will get back to you with the number,” Nielsen said.

Cicilline’s questions came days after DHS announced that Caal Maquin died in Border Patrol’s custody after making the journey through Mexico to the United States with her father.

The most recent numbers Customs and Border Protection has released are from 2015, when 10 people died as a result of force used by CBP officials. Voice of America reports that CBP was not forthcoming with updated figures when asked for them following news of Caal’s death.

VOA requested updated information from DHS and CBP about the number of deaths in CBP custody for the past three years.

DHS assistant press secretary Katie Waldman responded with the number of rescues Border Protection officials have performed in the last year, but did not include the number of deaths in custody.

A follow-up email regarding the questions about deaths in CBP custody went unanswered.

During Thursday’s hearing, Nielsen used a similar tactic. After Cicilline entered news reports into the congressional record about migrants who have died in DHS custody, Nielsen attempted to turn the tables by entering into the record “every single migrant that a CBP agent has saved.”

“I have not seen those particular studies”

Later, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) asked Nielsen if she was “aware” of a plethora of research indicating that immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans — a reality that undermines President Trump’s efforts to stoke fears about them.

Nielsen said she was not.

“I have not seen those particular studies,” she said.

“It’d be helpful if you start putting in some basic facts about the actual facts related to immigrants and crime,” Lieu replied.

One piece of research Lieu cited is a 2015 study by the Cato Institute titled “Immigration and Crime — What the Research Says.” It found that “roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males 18–39 are incarcerated, compared to 3.3 percent of the native-born,” and concluded that “the weight of the evidence suggests that immigration is not associated with increased levels of crime. To the extent that a relationship does exist, research often finds a negative effect of immigration on levels of crime, in general, and on homicide in particular.”

“It’s late in the day”

After Rep. Karen Handel (R-GA) noted that “there are so many people watching this hearing from my district, and they have some basic questions,” she proceeded to ask Nielsen one of them: “How many legal points of entry are there across the US-Mexico border?”

Nielsen, however, was stumped.

“Ah, I — it’s late in the day, and, it’s about, ah, between 20 and 30 is my recollection,” she said. (It was just after 2 pm at the time.)

“Okay, so certainly more than 20?” Handel followed up.

“I believe so,” Nielsen replied.

There are in fact 48 legal ports of entry across the border.

The hearing did not go well

Nielsen also had a hard time explaining why the Trump administration is threatening to shut down the government unless Congress forces American taxpayers to foot the bill for a border wall that Trump spent much of 2015 and ’16 vowing Mexico would pay for.

“From Congress, I would ask for wall — we need wall,” she said at one point.

There were a number of heated exchanges. Nielsen responded to Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) saying that “there is one thing this administration has done better than any other administration has in American history, which is lie” with the retort, “Calling me a liar are fighting words.”

Nielsen also repeatedly had difficulty explaining how the Trump administration’s family separation policy squares with a tweet she posted in June claiming that no such policy existed.

The secretary did receive some support, however. At one point, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) defended the family separation policy Trump tried to walk back in an executive order following widespread outcry, noting that “parents are separated from children every single day of every year.”

“[Special counsel Robert] Mueller did it, and I know he’s a hero to some folks around here, he did it to [Paul] Manafort — separated him from his two beautiful children. It happens,” Gohmert added.

But Manafort’s daughters are in their 30s, and were only “separated” from him after he was indicted on an array of tax, financial, and bank fraud charges.

The Trump administration’s policy, by contrast, resulted in asylum seekers sometimes being separated from their children — despite the fact that seeking asylum is legal.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.