- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2019

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told Congress on Thursday that the answer to troubling stories of overcrowding of illegal immigrants at the border is to increase money for ICE detention in the interior, putting the burden back on the Democrats most vocal in complaining about the conditions.

Mr. McAleenan testified to Congress as the finger-pointing over the border reached new depths, with some top Democrats lodging accusations of torture and Nazi-style tactics against federal law enforcement, citing the masses of illegal immigrant adults kept in unsanitary conditions at border facilities.

The solution, Mr. McAleenan said, is to get them out of the custody of Border Patrol and into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But Congress last month refused to give ICE another infusion of cash, leaving the agency struggling for bed space and forcing the migrants to remain at the border for weeks on end.

“We requested thousands more beds than we got,” he said. “That’s why we’re experiencing that backup at the border.”

After a couple of weeks of allegations of child abuse and even homicide — the latter charge lodged at the administration by the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee — Mr. McAleenan got a chance to push back directly to lawmakers, disputing a number of the claims they have made after border visits.

He firmly rejected the notion that illegal immigrants are forced to get their drinking water from toilets and said reports that migrants are forced to go without showers, to defecate in blankets and to sit in dirty clothes are unfounded. And he said migrants do, in fact, have toothbrushes.

He said the court-appointed monitor who suggested the situation was otherwise at one Texas facility for children was mistaken. That monitor, he said, never actually went into the facility but rather talked to children in a conference room and reported what they said.

“They did not see the supplies available. They did not see the toothbrushes available,” Mr. McAleenan said. “They have tens of thousands of toothbrushes.”

He added: “We’re washing their clothes, we’re giving them new clothes.”

The secretary was testifying to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which has launched an investigation of the treatment of children at the border.

But it was quickly clear the two sides aren’t operating from the same set of facts or assumptions. Democrats believe children are being abused by the conditions where they are placed, perhaps intentionally, in a get-tough approach from the Trump administration.

“Come on, man? What’s that about? None of us would have our children in that position. They are human beings,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and the panel chairman.

Defenders of the Homeland Security Department counter by pointing to the heroic efforts they say agents and officers are making: 6 million meals served this year, 21,000 sick calls to hospitals and more than 250,000 hours babysitting migrants at those hospitals.

The Border Patrol has already performed 3,800 rescues this fiscal year, the government says.

“We are seeing agents almost every day dive into the water with their full equipment on to try to rescue families crossing the water,” Mr. McAleenan said.

Mr. Cummings at one point scolded members for questioning others’ motives and then proceeded to do it himself. He accused Mr. McAleenan and his department of having “an empathy deficit.”

His office immediately blasted an email to reporters highlighting the exchange.

Mr. Cummings later had to clarify, saying he didn’t mean to cast aspersions on agents and officers, but only Mr. McAleenan, for his role in last year’s zero-tolerance border policy.

Agreement on solutions was just as elusive as agreement on facts.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, Texas Democrat, demanded to know ICE’s numbers, saying she suspected they had empty beds they could use to alleviate overcrowding, but were saving those beds for President Trump’s planned deportation sweep.

“I suspect there are lots of empty ICE beds waiting for the interior enforcement,” she said.

Rep. Katie Hill, California Democrat, told Mr. McAleenan that he shouldn’t expect her side to give him the funds he was requesting.

“We are also not going to put more money in detention beds when people continue to see the images that make us sick to be Americans,” she said.

Mr. McAleenan said detaining migrant families is what worked in 2015 for the Obama administration, and he said he is not willing to give up the hope that Democrats will agree to the same policies President Obama had — before a court changed things.

He described what that would be: “Having families kept together for 40 to 50 days in a campuslike setting, in a family residential center with education, recreation, medical care and courtrooms right there on site.”

He suggested that a few hundred million dollars, and some policy changes, could make a major dent in the migrant surge. The policy changes would alter the incentives that draw most of the migrants to the U.S., while the money would be used to detain the migrants, which means they can be deported.

“What we would find very quickly is a response. If people are not successful in coming with a child release, you are actually getting a decision from an immigration judge resulting in repatriation for the vast majority that would mean that others would not try to come,” the secretary said.

Border facilities are temporary holding places designed for processing migrants. In the case of children, they are supposed to be turned over quickly to health officials. In the case of single adults and families, they are to be turned over to ICE.

But the numbers were so overwhelming that ICE was out of bed space, and Homeland Security was releasing the families outright into border communities as quickly as they could be processed. But the adults had stacked up at the border, prompting photos of overcrowding.

Mr. McAleenan said more money for ICE — which Mr. Trump requested but which Congress rejected, at the behest of Democrats — would solve that.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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