By Joshua Jamerson
WASHINGTON—Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday offered a glimpse of the strict oversight to come from Democrats still fuming over the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy along the Southern border.
Ahead of the hearing, Ms. Nielsen said the U.S. plans to start returning migrants who enter the country illegally to Mexico until their immigration proceedings are complete.
Ms. Nielsen answered questions from lawmakers about a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl, Jakelin Caal Maquin, who died this month at a hospital in El Paso, Texas. She died a little more than a day after she and her father were arrested with a group of about 160 people on Dec. 6 in Antelope Wells, N.M., a remote border crossing in southern New Mexico.
Responding to a query from Rep. Hank Johnson (D., Ga.) about the girl’s death, Ms. Nielsen said that her staff was first notified about the matter on Dec. 7 and she received a “full readout email” on Dec. 13.
Mr. Johnson asked how many other children had died in the custody of DHS.
“I’ll get back to you on that figure,” Ms. Nielsen said. “I’m not going to guess under oath.”
The episode highlights how Reps. Jerry Nadler of New York, the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, who will lead the Homeland Security Committee, both see the administration’s immigration policy along the Mexican border as key to their oversight priorities. The representatives wrote a letter Friday notifying Ms. Nielsen that the committees would investigate the circumstances surrounding Jakelin’s death when Democrats take majority control of the House in January.
“Please be assured that our committees will be conducting further oversight of your efforts on this important matter in the upcoming year,” they wrote.
House Democrats are also planning to probe the administration’s immigration policies more broadly, which could include other parts of the government, such as the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services.
“I get sworn in (as chairman) on the third of January, and we’re going to hit the ground running,” Mr. Thompson said in a recent interview. “I’d say by the end of January, we’ll be moving.”
Republicans say they expect Democratic oversight to be more a matter of showmanship than substantive inquiry. “They’re going to want to go for what they consider their high-profile political hearings, and that would be child separation,” said Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, who will be the top Republican on the Judiciary panel in January. “I fully expect the hearings to be more dramatic in that regard.”
Committee aides and congressional experts say jurisdiction over DHS—which was formed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in part by consolidating existing functions within the government—is often messy. The Judiciary and Homeland committees are considered the two primary panels in the House that conduct oversight of DHS, but others—such as panels on Transportation and Infrastructure, as well as on Energy and Commerce—also have authority over slices of the sprawling department.
“Congress is still struggling with some of the legacy challenges of creating the Homeland Department,” said Justin Rood, a former GOP aide on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee who now works at the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight.
Democratic lawmakers say when they take over the House, they will want to learn more about how agencies, including the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, interpreted and implemented guidance from the Justice Department last spring to prosecute adults who attempt illegal entry into the U.S. The so-called zero tolerance policy provoked a political outcry when it led to the separation of thousands of children from adults who were arriving at the Southern border.
Mr. Trump reversed course over the summer, saying in an executive order that families seeking asylum should be detained together. But in October he again advocated for separating families that cross the border illegally. Now Democrats preparing for hearings have threatened to use their subpoena power in the next Congress to conduct investigations.
“We never had hearings on issues around this ‘zero tolerance’ that upped the number of children being separated from families along the border. We never had hearings addressing the treatment of people in facilities along the border, or for that matter the interior of the country either,” Mr. Thompson said. “I just think that something that comes up that’s in our lane, we would be remiss not to address it.”
Mr. Thompson said he plans to ask Ms. Nielsen to appear before the committee early in 2019 if she remains in her post, though her future at the department has been in question since President Trump removed John Kelly as his chief of staff this month. Ms. Nielsen was a protégé of Mr. Kelly, who endorsed her as his successor when he left DHS a year and a half ago and defended her performance against critics inside the White House.
A GOP aide on the Homeland Committee said that the outgoing chairman, Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), co-wrote legislation over the summer to address the situation along the border but Democrats and some Republicans opposed it.
There is a least one Democrat who sees a hard line when it comes to oversight of Homeland matters: Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.), the incoming chairman of the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. His committee is gearing up for a series of probes into the conduct of Mr. Trump and those in White House, including an investigation into Ivanka Trump’s use of a private email account.
“I mean, I’m interested in it,” Mr. Cummings said of the “zero tolerance” policy in a brief interview last week. “But we have some other things that are much more in our jurisdiction that we need to deal with.”
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