U.S. homeland security chief asserts family reunifications on track

The chief of the U.S. Homeland Security Department has told members of Congress that the government is “on track” to meet Thursday’s court-ordered deadline of reuniting hundreds of migrant children with their families, lawmakers who met privately with her said.

Wednesday’s assertion by Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was greeted with open disbelief and anger, according to many of the roughly 20 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus — all Democrats — who attended. The private, hour-long meeting seemed to achieve little toward dousing lawmakers’ criticism of how children taken from their parents are being handled.

Nielsen also told the group, “I am not a racist,” according to two of the lawmakers. One of them, Representative Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, said she made the remark after he told her she worked for a “racist regime.” Gutierrez said she cited her friendship with the first lady of Honduras and other Latina women.

Representative Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, tweeted that she told the lawmakers: “I am not a racist. Nobody believes families should be separated.”

‘They believe they’re on track’

A spokesperson for the Homeland Security Department was asked for comment and did not immediately provide one.

After the meeting, lawmakers said Nielsen provided no statistics to support her assertion that the deadline for reuniting families would be met.

Representative Luis Gutierrez said he told Nielsen she works for a racist regime. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

“She said they believe they’re on track” to meet the court deadline, said Representative Jim Costa, a California Democrat, one of several lawmakers who said she used that phrase to describe the status of reuniting separated families.

“That’s impossible. And we all said this to her,” said Democratic Representative Ruben Gallego of Arizona.

‘She is a child abuser’

Gutierrez said he told Nielsen “she is committing crimes against humanity, that she is a child abuser” and that she is “an accomplice of Donald Trump’s racist regime.”

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego set a Thursday deadline for reuniting children age five and older who have been held by the government since their families were caught entering the country without authorization.

As many as 2,551 children age 5 and up were separated from their families and 1,187 children have been reunified with parents, guardians or sponsors, the government has said. The exact number still separated is unclear. The government has been releasing hundreds of families to faith-based groups, which are caring for them.

The government has said 463 migrant parents may have been deported after being separated from their children, further complicating the reunification process. Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said Nielsen suggested to the lawmakers Wednesday that those children were left behind in the U.S. at those parents’ requests.

“We simply do not believe that’s true,” Menendez said.

Around 50 children under 5 still separated from parents

A separate deadline that Sabraw had set for reuniting around 100 children younger than age five with their families passed two weeks ago. Just over half have rejoined their parents or guardians, according to the latest figures.

The separations caused a bipartisan, nationwide uproar against Trump’s policy of “zero tolerance,” in which the government prosecutes all migrants entering the U.S. illegally.

Nielsen ignored reporters’ questions when she left the meeting. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

The government initially separated children from their detained parents or guardians. Under pressure, Trump abandoned the family separation policy, but hundreds of children remain apart from their parents in conditions that visitors have described as horrid.

Nielsen ignored reporters’ questions when she left the meeting.

“Very productive. Very frank,” she said.

$5B for Trump’s wall

The lawmakers said Nielsen also told them her agency is financing the costs of detaining families with a 1 per cent across-the-board cut to its programs.

A Homeland Security spokesperson said the added costs are due to increased numbers of people being caught entering the country, and the money is being used for additional beds and transportation expenses.

Separately, the Republican-dominated House Appropriations Committee approved $5 billion US for building parts of Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico after rejecting a Democratic effort to redirect that money to other immigration programs.

Trump has requested the $5 billion for next year, but the Senate version of the bill financing the Homeland Security Department has just $1.6 billion. The final amount will need to be worked out later this year.

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