Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in Hot Seat for Treatment of Child Migrants at Southern U.S. Border

On Wednesday, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen sat in front of a congressional committee for a hearing on U.S. border policy in what became a heated back-and-forth between the secretary and several members of the House Homeland Security Committee as they posed tough questions about the treatment of migrants at the border. Many of the questions centered around policies that affected the health, safety, and dignity of minors in the wake of the zero-tolerance family separation policy — a policy whose existence Nielsen denied. “The consequence of any adult going to jail in this country is they are separated from their child,” said Nielsen.

Representative Bennie Thompson, chairman of the HHSC, asked Secretary Nielsen if cages were still being used to detain minors at the border. “Sir, we don’t use cages for children,” she responded, insisting that the secure, chain link facilities were not “cages” but rather “areas of the border facility that are carved out for the safety and protection of those that remain there while they’re being processed.” Thompson suggested that Nielsen was attempting to mislead the committee through the semantics of whether or not the facilities could be called cages. Nielsen also claimed that every parent who had traveled with a child to the border was “given the option to return to their country with their children.”

“Our capacity is already severely strained, but these increases will overwhelm the system entirely,” said Nielsen in her opening statement. “This is not a manufactured crisis. This is truly an emergency.” Nielsen is correct about the system being strained; last month saw an 11-year high in migrants crossing the southern border. The commissioner of Customs and Border Protection announced earlier this week that “[The] system is well beyond capacity, and remains at the breaking point,” describing a lack of resources and manpower for processing migrants as well as being able to provide adequate medical care for what can sometimes be over 2,000 arrivals each day, many of whom arrive at legal ports of entry.

This challenge is not unique to the U.S.-Mexico border. A study published last summer about migrant health in Europe called upon the EU to create a “a sustainable and comprehensive health approach that is aimed at the integration of all of migrants and refugees” that goes beyond the kinds of “emergency-driven health measures” that are currently putting stress on the CBP.

We can also look to Europe to see how the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies can set migrants up for health crises down the road. The Lancet published a study a couple weeks ago assessed the migration policies of high-income countries around the world that found that restrictive entry policies such as detention have been damaging to the mental health of undocumented immigrants. Restrictive policies against immigrants once they entered a country also led to worse health outcomes. At the hearing yesterday, Representative Lauren Underwood pressed Nielsen on whether the administration was aware and had considered how children would be harmed by being separated from their families. “Tearing kids and their parents apart is immoral, ma’am,” said Underwood. “It’s un-American and it’s just plain wrong.”

If there was a moment of clarity at Wednesday’s hearing, it came from Al Green, a Democrat from Texas. “There are those who believe that we already have too many people of color in this country,” Green said. “And these—one of whom happens to be the President of the United States of America—would institute policies that will prevent people of color from coming to this country. White babies would not be treated the way these babies of color are being treated, Madam Secretary. This is about color.”

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