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Democrats Clash With Homeland Security Secretary Over Migrant Children Deaths

May 22, 2019
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A dramatic scene on Capitol Hill today where Democrats clashed with the acting secretary of Homeland Security over the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. Five migrant children have died since last December after being apprehended by the Border Patrol. They had been diagnosed with the flu and other illnesses. First-term representative Lauren Underwood of Illinois blamed the Trump administration.

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LAUREN UNDERWOOD: At this point with five kids that have died, 5,000 separated from their families, I feel like - and the evidence is really clear that this is intentional. It's intentional. It's a policy choice being made on purpose by this administration, and it's cruel and inhumane.

KEVIN MCALEENAN: That's an appalling accusation. And our men and women fight hard to protect people in our custody every single day.

KELLY: That is acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan. He says he needs more money and more help from Congress to address what he called the humanitarian crisis at the border. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. He joins us now. Hey, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Tell us in more detail what exactly happened at this hearing today.

ROSE: Well, Republicans on the committee objected vigorously to Underwood's remarks. The ranking member, Mike Rogers, accused her of accusing the administration of intentionally murdering children. Underwood denied that. She said these five children died because of policy choices by the administration. And the committee had to go into a short recess to figure out what to do about this and then voted to strike her comments from the record.

KELLY: What is not in dispute is this comes just two days after a 16-year-old migrant from Guatemala died at a Border Patrol station in Texas. How was that discussed at the hearing?

ROSE: Well, the deaths of these migrant children did come up repeatedly. As you heard, Democrats brought them up. And Acting Secretary McAleenan did not shy away from discussing these deaths either. Here's some of what he had to say in his opening remarks.

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MCALEENAN: These tragedies are devastating to us, and they are avoidable. We are working to do everything we possibly can to address the immediate and dire humanitarian crisis. But it is not enough.

ROSE: McAleenan says DHS has moved more personnel to the border and brought in more medical staff to screen the migrants in their custody. But he says the immigration system is still overwhelmed. More than a hundred thousand migrants have crossed the border each of the past two months. And the system is especially overwhelmed in the Rio Grande Valley, where this 16-year-old migrant, Carlos Hernandez Vasquez, died.

KELLY: All right, so specifics - what exactly is Kevin McAleenan asking Congress for?

ROSE: Well, for one thing - more money. The administration recently asked for $4.5 billion in an emergency supplemental request. Some of that money would go for processing these migrant families coming from Central America. Also some of it would cover basic supplies, things like food and blankets.

DHS also wants more money to keep border security and enforcement operations going. DHS says that mission has been stretched thin by dealing with the humanitarian crisis. And a lot of the supplemental money would go to U.S. Health and Human Services. That's the agency that has responsibility for migrant children who cross the border without a legal guardian, like Hernandez.

And finally the administration is asking for changes to immigration law that would make it easier to detain migrant families for longer. Right now many of these families are released into the U.S. until their day in immigration court.

KELLY: And meanwhile, the wall - the border wall that President Trump shut down the government over because Congress wouldn't give him the money he wanted to build it - did that come up at this hearing?

ROSE: It did. Democrats are concerned that the administration is requesting more money for the border wall - $5 billion as part of DHS's budget for next year - and that the administration at the same time is asking for less for counterterrorism programs, in particular some grant programs that are very popular. McAleenan was asked if that means the border is a higher priority than counterterrorism. He defended the request and said, no, it's a balance.

KELLY: It's a balance. NPR's Joel Rose, thank you.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.