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House Democrat says death of migrants in Border Patrol custody were 'a policy choice'  4 Months ago

Source:   USA Today  

Rep. Lauren Underwood, a first-term Democratic congresswoman from Illinois, accused the head of the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday of implementing policies that have directly resulted in the death of five migrant children in U.S. Border Patrol custody.

"I feel like, and the evidence is really clear, that this is intentional," Underwood said to audible gasps in the committee room. "It’s a policy choice."

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan called her assertion an "appalling accusation" before the hearing took a recess.

Underwood's comments came as McAleenan was testifying before a House committee to defend his department's budget request, but he was repeatedly questioned about the treatment of migrant children along the border.

That's when Underwood, a nurse, began asking McAleenan about his department's treatment of migrant children, pointing to recent photos of migrants sleeping on the ground outside Border Patrol facilities despite increased funding from Congress to provide humanitarian assistance at the southern border.

Five children from Guatemala have died since December amid a record-setting surge of families and children pouring across the border.

 Before the hearing took a recess, an enraged Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the ranking member of the House Homeland Security committee, said Underwood basically accused McAleenan and his department of committing murder, and requested that Underwood's comments be "taken down."

Such a procedure marks questionable comments made by a House member and opens the possibility of punishment against that member. Members of the committee voted 9 to 5 to approve Rogers' request, meaning Underwood could face a variety of punishments.

Once the hearing restarted, McAleenan was allowed to explain his recent efforts as DHS secretary, and his previous work as commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, to improve medical conditions along the border.

He ordered increased medical screenings of children after the first Guatemalan child died in December. The Coast Guard and the U.S. Public Health Service have sent medical personnel to the border to help screen migrants. His department requested $800 million from Congress in January for humanitarian assistance along the border, and requested an extra $1.1 billion in the 2020 budget.

"I'm proud of that record," McAleenan said. "We’re working hard to address it."

Before Underwood's comments, Democrats and Republicans on the committee had asked pointed questions, but praised McAleenan's work in his first month as head of the department. 

Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said McAleenan has done "good work" in his tenure so far. And several other Democrats praised McAleenan, who rose to the position amidst a leadership shakeup that saw former secretary Kirstjen Nielsen ousted as Trump pushed for a stronger approach to seal the southern border.

But, after Underwood spoke, other Democrats piled on.

Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., agreed that the migrant deaths were "intentional" based on actions taken by the Trump administration to halt or limit Central American migrants from seeking asylum in the U.S. That includes the "zero tolerance" policy that led to the separation of more than 2,800 migrant families in the summer of 2018, a policy that was derided by so many officials in both political parties that Trump rescinded it and a federal judge ordered those families reunited.

Given that track record, Barragán asked McAleenan how he could express any level of pride in a record that features five migrant deaths in six months.

"That is despicable to say," she said. "You should not be proud of a record of having five children die under your watch."

McAleenan insisted that he's doing everything he can to protect migrants, but said the only true solution lies with Congress.

He said Washington needs to change laws to allow him to detain migrant families together while their immigration cases are resolved, to quickly deport Central American children if their asylum requests are denied, and to open refugee processing centers in Central America so migrant can make their claims there.

"Every day congress does not act puts more lives at risk," he said.

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