By Chesterfield Polkey
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified last week before the House Homeland Security Committee to advocate for Congress to take legislative action on securing the U.S. southern border.
Nielsen stressed the need to fill U.S. Customs and Border Protection staff vacancies, advance border-security technology and build a wall to reduce the number of drugs, smugglers and families coming between ports of entry.
In her remarks, Nielsen highlighted the increased number of sexual assaults taking place because of women and children traveling with smugglers across Mexico and subsequently, the U.S.-Mexico border. Nielsen also identified 3,000 “special interest aliens” apprehended at the U.S. southern border in 2018, who may pose a threat to national security.
Democratic representatives criticized both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as well as the greater Trump administration for continued family separations at the border and the national emergency. Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) as well as other committee Democrats argued that the president’s national emergency declaration is misplaced and that border apprehensions have decreased over time, the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy causes trauma due to family separation, most anti-terrorist activity occurs at airports, and most illegal drugs come through ports of entry, making a wall ineffective.
Republicans showed their support for Nielsen by arguing that the emergency declaration is warranted because immigrants crossing the border illegally have shifted from single men to families and unaccompanied minors, and illegal drugs such as fentanyl are coming into the U.S. at an increasing rate between ports of entry. They also said Congress needs to address and assist Central American countries, or the “Northern Triangle,” where conditions of poverty and violence are causing the increased immigration. Increased border security and physical barriers would reduce the rate of illegal smuggling and the number of women being sexually assaulted.
In responses to questions around family separation, Nielsen documented the continued use of the “zero-tolerance” policy as well the continued practice of placing detained children in fenced, enclosed areas. Nielsen also said she opposed creating a pathway to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival or Temporary Protected Status recipients, because the pathway would act as a “pull factor” for more undocumented immigrants.
In President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2020 budget, the administration proposes $51.7 billion in discretionary appropriations for DHS, a 7.8 percent increase from the 2019 budget. Nielsen’s remarks highlight the administration’s continued agenda to decrease the number of immigrants coming across the U.S. southern border. For more information on DHS’s budget see our webpage.
Chesterfield Polkey is NCSL's Emerson National Hunger Fellow.