Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Wednesday insisted that her agency does not illegally “detain” immigrant and refugee children, but she said it does “care for them” in facilities where they are not allowed to leave.
At a Senate hearing on Thursday, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) suggested that DHS had violated federal statutes by detaining children longer than is legally allowed.
“You [testified] that your agency does not detain children,” Harris noted. “However, it appears that there is some conflict between your understanding and what the [Inspector General] reported in September of 2018.”
“There was a finding that [Customs and Border Patrol] held children for an extended period of time in facilities solely for short-term detention,” the senator continued, “despite assertions from you that children were being transferred to [Health and Human Services] within 72 hours as is statutorily required.”
Harris said that in several cases children were held in CBP custody for at least 25 days.
“How do you reconcile the testimony you’ve provided this committee with the report from the IG?” Harris asked.
Nielsen argued that housing children for dozens of days is not the same as detaining them.
“What you’re talking about is an unaccompanied child,” Nielsen opined.
“But, Secretary, I just have a minute left,” Harris interrupted. “You testified that you don’t detain children. The IG report indicates that CBP — I’m not finished — the IG report indicates that CBP has detained children. And not only has CBP detained children, they have detained them for longer than is statutorily allowed.”
“How do you reconcile the IG report with your testimony this morning?” Harris pressed.
“We do not detain children,” Nielsen insisted. “What we do is, when we apprehend them at a border patrol station, we process them. And as soon as there is room in an HHS facility, we transfer them.”
“So does the processing involve detention?” Harris wondered.
“It’s not a detention facility!” Nielsen exclaimed.
“Do they stay in CPB custody? Do they spend the night there?” the California senator tried again, appearing annoyed.
“We are not able to, under the law, put them anywhere else,” Nielsen replied. “So, we will care for them until bed space opens at a detention facility at HHS.”
“In other words, you do detain children,” Harris remarked.
“In other words, we do not have enough detention facilities at HHS because 10,000 children were sent here unaccompanied and their parents chose to do that,” Nielsen insisted.