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)
Homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who was grilled about her previous statements that the administration did not have a family separation policy © AP

The US homeland security secretary came under fresh pressure in tough questioning from House Democrats on Wednesday about the administration’s emergency declaration over the southern border and its family separation policy for immigrants.

Kirstjen Nielsen’s testimony followed a Customs and Border Protection announcement just a day before about a rise in migrant families crossing the US-Mexico border, despite repeated actions by the Trump administration to tighten security.

For more than three hours, Democratic lawmakers questioned Ms Nielsen on her support for the administration’s family separation policy, how many unaccompanied minors remained in the custody of Health and Human Services, and inaccurate statements that had been perpetuated by members of the administration.

For her part, Ms Nielsen stood by the administration’s position that Mr Trump was fully within his power to declare a national emergency at the border. “It’s an emergency,” she said. “This is a true humanitarian crisis that the system is enabling. We have to change the laws.”

Ms Nielsen’s testimony came as the immigration controversy reached Wall Street. Caliburn International, the company that runs the Homestead detention centre in Florida, on Tuesday scrapped plans to list on the New York Stock Exchange, citing “variability in equity markets”. Caliburn had listed “negative publicity” as a risk factor for its IPO in regulatory filings.

It faced protests this week from the Florida Immigration Coalition, which said that the Homestead centre housed more than 1,000 children who had either come to the US as unaccompanied minors or were separated from their parents by US officials.

Caliburn’s filing details that it is “involved in providing medical and daily living services for children who are stopped and taken into custody at the US border” but adds that “we have not been involved in the separation of children from their families and do not currently provide services to ICE, although we have sought opportunities and may do so in the future.”

The cancellation of the IPO plans followed a move by JPMorgan Chase to withdraw from providing banking services to the private prison industry. JPMorgan has provided financing to both Geo Group and CoreCivic, both of which have run facilities where immigrant families are held after detention at the border.

At the homeland security hearing, Bennie Thompson, the Democratic chair of the committee, said he hoped Ms Nielsen would take the opportunity to be transparent about President Donald Trump’s false statements on the border wall as well as the administration’s past family separation policy, which it ended last year.

“The secretary can choose whether to be complicit in this administration’s misinformation campaign,” Mr Thompson said, “or she can correct the record.”

Ms Nielsen was grilled about her previous statements that the administration did not have a family separation policy, as well as Mr Trump’s assertions that the US was facing an unprecedented flow of illegal migrants attempting to cross the US border — despite the fact that overall border crossings are down significantly since the year 2000.

The statistics are used by both sides of the immigration debate to defend their stance.

Last month, according to Customs and Border Protection data, more than 76,000 migrant families crossed the southwestern border into the US, or more than double the number the agency recorded for February 2018.

The administration and Republican lawmakers argue that this uptick underscores the need for Mr Trump’s border wall, and the changing nature of the situation at the border, with an increasing numbers of families and unaccompanied children crossing, often on treacherous journeys.

Democrats, on the other hand, point to the overall decrease in border crossings in recent years. In 2000, the US made 1.64m arrests of individuals attempting to illegally cross the border. In the 2018 fiscal year, it made just under 400,000 arrests.

In her testimony, Ms Nielsen said the US was on track to make 900,000 arrests this year. “The projections are dire,” she stated.

In response to attacks that the administration’s family separation policy was “immoral”, the secretary argued that it was the current, flawed system that was inhumane. “I am extraordinarily compassionate in my job,” she said.

The hearing comes ahead of a Senate vote on a resolution to disapprove of Mr Trump’s emergency declaration over the border. At least four Republican senators have already said they will vote for the resolution, giving it enough support to pass the Senate. This will all but ensure that Mr Trump will need to use the presidential veto to push his emergency declaration through.

The White House broke several days of silence about the move by the four Republican senators against Mr Trump by putting pressure on those lawmakers to stick with their caucus. 

“My message to that group is to do your job,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on the Fox & Friends programme on Wednesday. “If you had done what you were elected to do on the front end, the president wouldn’t have to fix this problem on his own through a national emergency.”

Mr Trump followed up in a tweet: “Senate Republicans are not voting on constitutionality or precedent, they are voting on desperately needed Border Security & the Wall . . . That’s what this vote is all about. STAY UNITED!”

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