The Trump administration is implementing a new policy to force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their case is processed, a move an immigration advocacy group says would endanger the lives of vulnerable people fleeing violence.
The new policy was announced by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during a fiery House Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday. During the hearing, House Democrats grilled Nielsen about the Trump administration’s family separation policies and the treatment of vulnerable migrants including the circumstances that led to the death of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl, Jakelin Caal Maquin who died in an El Paso, Texas hospital this month after she and her father were arrested after crossing the border in New Mexico.
Nielsen also admitted she did not know how many migrants have died while in Homeland Security custody.
This was Nielsen’s first appearance in front of the House Judiciary Committee. While most Republican members of the committee used their time to praise Border Patrol agents and bash liberals and the media, Democrats focused their time objecting to the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies.
"It seems you agree w/Tucker Carlson, that immigrants only bring danger & dirt. But I must say, the record for lying in face of all evidence was a tweet you posted that says 'we do not have a policy of separating families, period.'" pic.twitter.com/xjIc8hp6Bo
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) December 20, 2018
U.S. Rep. Luis Vicente Gutiérrez (D-IL) in a heated speech accused Nielsen of lying about the Trump administration’s family separation policy and of sharing Fox News Host Tucker Carlson’s racist anti-immigration sentiments. He noted that such immigration policies would have prevented Jesus Christ from entering Egypt.
“Shame on everybody who separates children and allows them to stay on the other side of the border fearing death, fearing hunger, fearing sickness. Shame on us for wearing our badge of Christianity during Christmas and allow the secretary to come here and lie,” Gutiérrez said.
Nielsen defended the administration by saying they have cracked down on violent gangs and human traffickers that have harmed many of the migrants making the dangerous trek to the U.S.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), on the other hand, helped defend the government’s child separation policy by pointing out that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has effectively separated parents from their children by pursuing felony charges against members of Trump’s inner circle.
Rep Gohmert on child separation policy. Mueller separated Manafort from his children. It happens. So what's the problem? pic.twitter.com/PiFuAqSAkn
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) December 20, 2018
The new asylum policy announced on Wednesday, which Nielsen described as a cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico, would force migrants to wait in Mexico while they go through a lengthy asylum application process instead being allowed into the U.S. while they wait.
Immigration advocates say the policy puts vulnerable people from Central America fleeing violence and persecution in danger. Earlier this week, officials discovered the bodies of two Honduran teens who were murdered while waiting at a migrant youth shelter in Mexico as they sought entrance into the U.S.
“It is incomprehensible that the Trump Administration would take the exactly opposite action it should to protect children and families at the U.S. border on the heels of the murder of two boys seeking U.S. protection,” Wendy Young, president of the child immigration advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) said in a statement.
“U.S. immigration law clearly states that asylum seekers who arrive at our borders can apply for asylum, a requirement that reflects the longstanding tradition of the United States and is also codified in international law,” Young added. With this new policy change, the U.S. “will be forcing children and families to wait indefinitely in dangerous conditions with little to no access to basic services or lawyers to help them claim asylum or other protection.”
Under the new policy, any migrant seeking asylum cannot enter the U.S. until a federal immigration judge approves their case. The Mexican government will be responsible for providing humanitarian aide while they wait.
“They will not be able to disappear into the United States,” Nielsen told members of Congress. “We don’t want to have laws or loopholes that encourage them to put them in danger at the hands of traffickers or smugglers. We want to discourage those who are claiming asylum fraudulently.”
Nielsen added that asylum seekers who pass an initial credible fear test by border patrol agents are often not allowed entry into the country by an immigration court judge and often miss their court hearings.
U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D- NY) noted during the hearing that it can take years before a migrant is approved for asylum and questioned why the administration doesn’t add more immigration court judges and process people faster, instead of refusing entry entirely.
“A policy that says that anyone who legitimately deserves political asylum should spend years in detention seems to be in gross violation of international law and United States law,” he said.
A number of Democrats questioned Nielsen about the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy which prosecuted anyone found crossing the border outside the port of entry, and separated them from their children in the process. She dodged, claiming it was not actually a policy but the administration upholding existing law.
“Although you’ve claimed publicly that you didn’t know anything about a family separation policy and you tweeted about it, you signed off on a memo authorizing this practice described as ‘zero tolerance’,” said U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), showing Nielsen a document about the policy which she signed.
“This notion that you have no responsibility for it, you reviewed it, it was authorized as one of three options, you picked it,” said Cicilline. “This is a disgrace that belies our values as a country… This doesn’t reflect who we are.”