House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings ripped into the acting head of Homeland Security Thursday, upbraiding Kevin McAleenan over the conditions of detention facilities for migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Maryland Democrat got emotional while discussing the crowded centers migrants are being held in. Reading from a court document in which a federal judge found that Homeland Security “did a better job of tracking immigrants’ personal property than their children,” Cummings repeatedly shut down McAleenan’s attempts to speak up.
“I’m talking about human beings,” Cummings said. “I’m not talking about people that come from, as the president said, sh–holes. These are human beings. Human beings. Just trying to live a better life.”
Cummings asked whether there was an “empathy deficit" at DHS, though he later clarified that he meant the Trump administration’s implementation of its so-called zero tolerance policy toward people crossing the border without permission. The 2018 policy, which was intended to deter migrants from coming to the U.S. and led to families being detained and split up, lasted little more than a month before President Donald Trump ended family separations amid public outcry.
Two government watchdogs have since found that the administration was unprepared to carry out the policy or to mitigate its effects.
Cummings took particular issue with McAleenan’s suggestion shortly after assuming the acting secretary role that DHS maintained “very careful” records of the relationships between migrant children and their parents crossing the border in order to reunite them “very expeditiously.” One inspector general report subsequently found “no evidence” of the kind of central database the Trump administration had touted. McAleenan acknowledged Thursday that information systems between immigration agencies hadn’t been sufficiently integrated.
Cummings said he wouldn’t accuse McAleenan of being untruthful “lightly," noting that "your claim is also refuted by not one but two independent inspectors general.”
Outlining additional areas where McAleenan has offered a different account than government watchdogs, Cummings said he was troubled to hear DHS painting a rosier picture of its work at the border.
“And therefore, I guess — you feel like you’re doing a great job right?” Cummings asked, to which McAleenan began to say his department was “doing our level best,” before being cut off again.
“What does that mean? What does that mean? When a child is sitting in their own feces, can’t take a shower?” Cummings said, his voice shaking. “Come on man. What’s that about? None of us would have our children in that position.”
“They are human beings,” he said, beginning to raise his voice. He added that he didn’t think Democrats’ complaints were being taken seriously. “I get tired of folks saying, ‘Oh they’re just beating up on the Border Patrol. Oh, they’re just beating up on Homeland Security.’ All I’m saying is I want to concentrate on these children, and I want to make sure that they’re okay. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: It’s not the deed you do to a child. It’s the memory. It’s the memory.”
“We are the United States of America! We are the greatest country in the world,” he thundered. “Come on. We’re better than that. And I don’t want us to lose sight of that. How do you say to a two-year-old … ‘We can’t find your mother, but we can find her keys?’”
When McAleenan finally responded, he told Cummings that he would welcome the opportunity to travel to the border with him and offering a full-throated defense of his agents.
He said he wanted Cummings to be able to see “our men and women and how hard they’re working to care for children. Border patrol agents holding children that are not their own, that were brought across by smugglers, putting formula and baby bottles together.”
He refuted at least one of Cummings’ accusations, telling the chairman that “there’s no one defecating in a Mylar blanket,” and adding that the long-delayed emergency funding authorized by Congress a few weeks prior had been helpful.
“We are taking care of these children thanks to the resources we finally have; they’re moving very quickly through our facilities to [the Department of] Health and Human Services to a better situation.”
Oversight ranking member Jim Jordan also came to McAleenan’s defense, asking the secretary if any of the ongoing issues at detention facilities could have been addressed sooner had Congress been able to come to an agreement on the emergency funding months ago, when it was initially requested.
“Of course,” McAleenan said, adding that the lack of funding, “left children in these situations for way too long.”
He pushed back on Cummings’ assertion that there was a deficit of empathy within agency, noting that Border Patrol has a specialized unit trained in emergency search and rescue that focuses on assisting stranded or injured migrants at the border or in remote locations.
"Where’s the deficit of empathy there?" he asked. "These are predominantly Latino Border Patrol agents, they have children of their own, and they’re out there doing their best."
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine