Senators grill DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen over child detenti - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Senators grill DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen over child detentions under ‘zero-tolerance’ policy at border

Posted: Updated: Oct 10, 2018 11:29 AM
Children and families stage a sit-in to demand the Trump administration reunify migrant families separated at the border, in the Hart Senate office building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 26, 2018. The separation and detention of children fr Children and families stage a sit-in to demand the Trump administration reunify migrant families separated at the border, in the Hart Senate office building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 26, 2018. The separation and detention of children fr
Children and families stage a sit-in to demand the Trump administration reunify migrant families separated at the border, in the Hart Senate office building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 26, 2018. The separation and detention of children fr Children and families stage a sit-in to demand the Trump administration reunify migrant families separated at the border, in the Hart Senate office building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 26, 2018. The separation and detention of children fr
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WASHINGTON - Democratic senators grilled Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Wednesday about the detention of children along the southern border with Mexico that sparked widespread protests during the summer.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said Nielsen's assertion under oath that her department doesn't detain children appeared in conflict with an inspector general's report Sept. 27 that children were detained and for longer than the 72 hours allowed by statute.

The report found that 27 percent of the children detained by Customs and Border Protection in the Rio Grande Valley sector and 23 percent in the El Paso sector were held for longer than five days. In one case, a child was held in the Rio Grande sector for 25 days. Nielsen's denial of detaining children contrasted with pictures and video during the summer of children in chain-link cages at CBP facilities.

"Not only has CBP detained children, it has detained them for longer than is statutorily allowed,' Harris said at a Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing. "How do you reconcile the IG report with your testimony?'

Nielsen said CBP processes children with medical screening and then transfers them to the Department of Health and Human Services. But because of the large influx, HHS sometimes isn't able to receive children immediately, she said.

"It's not detention facilities,' Nielsen said at her first hearing since the zero-tolerance policy focused attention on the issue. "We are not able to, under the law, put them anywhere else.'

The number of immigrant children who arrived alone or with relatives sometimes overwhelmed the government's ability to process and detain them.

"In order words, we do not have detention facilities at DHS for 10,000 children who were sent here unaccompanied - and their parents chose to do that,' Nielsen said.

During Nielsen's opening statement, about a dozen protesters stood to protest family separations at the border. The protesters remained silent, but some donned shiny blankets and some held signs that said, "Families Belong Together" before police ushered them out.

The administration is trying to complete a court-ordered process to reunite more than 2,500 families that were separated under President Donald Trump's "zero-tolerance' policy.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the new policy in April, which required that all people apprehended trying to illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border were to be charged with a criminal violation and sent to immigration detention centers or federal prisons to await deportation hearings.

Before, most of those cases were treated as civil violations. That change prompted the government to detain those parents in separate facilities from their children, due to a U.S. law and a 1997 court settlement, known as the Flores Settlement, that limits the detention of children to no more than 20 days.

The policy was widely condemned, and the president signed an executive order June 20 ending the practice. A week later, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw ruled that the practice may have violated the due process rights of the families and ordered the administration to reunite them within 30 days.

By Oct. 5, 104 children waited to be reunited with their parents, according to the committee.

The committee released statistics showing that 2,654 children had been separated from their parents under the zero-tolerance policy. The panel said 2,337 had been reunited with parents, other relatives or family friends. The Department of Health and Human Services has 166 children whose parents were red-flagged or deported and wanted the children to remain. Another 47 children were found not to be separated, according to the panel.

"How long is too long to detain a child?' asked Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.

Nielsen said HHS detains children rather than DHS. But she said sometimes it takes longer to find relatives or sponsors in the United States to receive the children.

"In general, the answer is as short amount of time as possible,' Nielsen said. "I am concerned that we need to take the best care of them that we can, to place them with a family member or sponsor as soon as possible.'

The criticism wasn't universal on the panel. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., commended Nielsen for caring for the children.

"You're actually trying to be able to manage and provide care to kids that have not had care sometimes from their own parents, sometimes at all from anyone, for weeks at that point,' Lankford said. "You're putting a positive face forward for America to be able to help provide care for kids who are in a vulnerable moment. I appreciate that.'

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