The U.S. government doesn’t put migrant children in cages, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told Congress — at least not ones with a top, a bottom, and walls.
“We don’t use cages for children,” Nielsen told the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, during her testimony Wednesday. When pressed, she stood by her answer that Border Patrol has never put a child in “a cage like this” — and then outlined the shape of a square with her hands.
“I’ve seen the cages,” Thompson countered. “I just want you to admit the cages exist.”
“Sir, they’re not cages,” Nielsen responded and explained that as children are processed into detention facilities, they’re held in “sub parts” for their protection. “If we have two gangs, we separate them into separate areas of that facility,” she continued.
Nielsen’s appearance before Congress marked her first since President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on Feb. 15 to unlock funding for his long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Nielsen had previously declined to testify before the committee on Feb. 6, which Thompson called “unreasonable,” “unacceptable,” and “outrageous.” He also threatened her with a subpoena if she didn’t comply before the end of that month.
When Nielsen appeared on Wednesday, she took the opportunity to defend Trump’s unusual measures to stem the near unprecedented flow of immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“This is not a manufactured crisis,” Nielsen said. “This is truly an emergency.”
Nearly 76,000 unauthorized migrants crossed the southern border in February, an 11-year high, primarily driven by families with children and unaccompanied minors fleeing unrest in Central America. When those children arrive in the U.S., they’re temporarily held — for no more than three days, under the law — in Border Patrol facilities.
When the Associated Press visited one of those facilities in Texas last June, reporters described “cages created by metal fencing” to house children. Various politicians — including some who participated in Wednesday’s hearing — have also visited these facilities and described seeing children in “cages.”
Border Patrol, however, has repeatedly objected to the holding centers being called “cages,” and the Trump administration has also noted that the Obama administration put unaccompanied, undocumented minors in similar environments, which people referred to as “cages” at the time as well.
During her testimony, Nielsen also repeatedly denied that the Trump administration’s now-defunct “zero tolerance” policy was meant to separate families at the border. The policy, however, immediately referred any adults who crossed the border without documentation for criminal proceedings in federal jails, where children aren’t allowed to be housed. That effectively split up thousands of migrant children from their parents.
“No amount of verbal gymnastics will change that she knew the Trump administration was implementing a policy to separate families at the border,” Thompson said in his opening statements Wednesday.
Trump issued an executive order in June to stop those separations, although the Texas Civil Rights Project recently released a report counting 272 separations at a single courthouse since Trump formally ended the policy.
Cover image: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 6, 2019, before the House Homeland Security Committee. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)