Watching Rep. Barragán Blast DHS Secretary Nielsen Over Family Separations Is a Cathartic Experience

Lead Photo: Rep. Nanette Barragan (D-CA) speaks at a press conference on Capitol Hill January 31, 2017 in Washington, DC. Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images
Rep. Nanette Barragan (D-CA) speaks at a press conference on Capitol Hill January 31, 2017 in Washington, DC. Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images
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With Democrats dissecting the Trump Adminitration’s immigration policies in four simultaneous Congressional hearings, Wednesday brought plenty of tense interactions. But perhaps the most stirring was when Rep. Nanette Barragán questioned Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who appeared before the House Homeland Security Committee, about the deaths of children under government custody, her understanding of asylum laws, and about the zero-tolerance policy that separated many families at the border. In six minutes, she showed the way that lawmakers should be fighting for our communities, making the video a cathartic experience.

Barragán, congresswoman for California’s 44th District who is also the second vice chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, started off by asking Nielsen if she would commit to visiting the caucus. But shortly after that, Barragán took her to task.

“Madam Secretary, do you know how many children have died in CBP [Customs and Border Protection] custody under your tenure as secretary?” Barragán asked.

“Yes, so we have the numbers for CBP and ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” Nielsen responded.

“Can you give me the numbers of how many children have died?” Barragán asked.

“Yes, I can. If you just give me one second,” Nielsen said. “I just don’t want to misspeak. But this last year we had, or so far this year, we’ve had three as you know in CBP custody.”

“So far, Madam Secretary?” Barragán asked, interrupting her. “Are you expecting more children to die?”

Barragán then also interrogated her about current protocols concerning asylum seekers. Quoting one of Nielsen’s previous responses, Barragán pressed her on whether she stood by her testimony that the government doesn’t turn away asylum seekers. Nielsen reiterated that she did.

“Well, let me tell you, Madam Secretary, either you’re lying to this committee or you don’t know what’s happening at the border,” the congresswoman said. “I have been there firsthand and I have seen it twice. More recently, it just happened on Saturday when I happened to be crossing the border with my mother. And I heard a gentleman say, ‘I’m from Honduras. I want to apply for asylum.’ He was already at the turnstile at the PedWest entry, and the agent said, ‘Sir, unless you have a visa, you need to leave. You need to go away.’ They didn’t say what you just said people do. They didn’t say, ‘Here is where you go get on a list.’ They didn’t say, ‘Here’s the information where you go get access to counsel.’”

Barragán tried to record the interaction, only to be told to stop. “They don’t want the American people knowing what is happening at that southern border,” she added, explaining that she intends to hold Nielsen accountable for what is transpiring.

As Nielsen kept dodging yes or no questions, Barragán grew increasingly frustrated and continued to give the DHS secretary examples of cases that contradicted her previous statements. Toward the end, she hardly let Nielsen chime in.

But she left Nielsen with one final thought: “You said you waited to give direction on how to implement the zero-tolerance policy, because you wanted to do it with compassion. Do you know how outrageous that sounds? You wanted to separate children and families and you wanted to do it with compassion?!”

Following the questioning, Barragán spoke to CNN and said she “absolutely” stood of what she said about Nielsen either not knowing what’s happening or lying about what’s happening at the border. “I just couldn’t have her sit there, either lying to Congress or telling her that that is not the case,” she added.