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Live Coverage and Commentary of Kirstjen Nielsen's Testimony Before House Homeland Security Committee. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired March 6, 2019 - 10:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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[10:30:32] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Breaking in now, questioning beginning of the homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen. This is the chairman, Bennie Thompson, beginning that questioning.

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON (D-MS), CHAIRMAN, HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE: -- asylum-seekers. A lot of us have had an opportunity to talk to a number of people involved. Can you tell the committee why asylum- seekers are being turned around, contrary to law?

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Sir, all asylum- seekers have the opportunity to present their case. We're not turning anybody around. What we are doing, is exercising statutory authority that enables us to, in conjunction with Mexico, to return to Mexico migrants who have arrived from that country, to await their processing.

This is to assure a safe and orderly flow, and to ensure that their humanitarian rights are protected.

THOMPSON: So your testimony is that, to your knowledge, no one presents themselves for asylum and is not presented their rights as to what they have to do?

NIELSEN: Our policy and processes when we encounter, as you know, an alien, is we do provide them with information on their legal rights, their ability to access counsel.

I'm not sure if you're referring to credible fear. If you do not pass that initial credible fear screening, obviously, then you do not -- you can appeal that. But generally speaking, you do not go on to meet before an immigration judge for your asylum claim.

THOMPSON: So is that something you'd do in writing or you do it orally?

NIELSEN: Both, both. They are presented with information in writing, and then we also, of course, advise them orally.

THOMPSON: Can you present this committee with the written direction that asylum-seekers receive from your department when they present themselves? NIELSEN: Yes.

THOMPSON: The other situation is, the president made a comment that he really didn't need to do the emergency declaration, he just wanted to do it faster. Do you have any information for the committee as to what he was talking about?

NIELSEN: My conversations, of course, with the president, generally speaking, are protected under privilege. But what I would say is, his explanation in general in public has been that he hoped Congress would act, that it didn't have to come to issuing an emergency declaration if Congress had met his request to fund the resources that CBP has requested.

THOMPSON: To your knowledge, are you aware of family members who have been separated from their children and deported back to a country without their children?

NIELSEN: Yes, sir.

THOMPSON: Can you provide this committee with a list of those individuals?

NIELSEN: I'm happy to do that, with the one caveat that, as you know, that's part of ongoing litigation in Ms. L and as long as there's no privacy concerns from the court, of course we're happy to provide that.

A lot of the information is in the Ms. L court, with respect to each migrant.

I would also just note that, consistent with longstanding practice and the law, before we deport any alien, after they have gone through the process and receive a final order of removal, we do ask them if they would like to take their children with them.

At that same time, their consulate or embassy, for purposes of issuing them travel papers, also asks them, "Would you like to be removed with your children as you're removed?"

As part of Ms. L, the judge also asked us to go back and ask the parents again, in conjunction with the ACLU, which we did. So there was no parent who has been deported -- to my knowledge -- without multiple opportunities to take their children with them.

THOMPSON: So is this with counsel present?

NIELSEN: I'm sorry?

THOMPSON: Is this with their attorney present?

NIELSEN: I can't speak to every case with that, sir.

THOMPSON: So what's --

NIELSEN: They have the right to a counsel, as you know. But the United States Government does not pay for that, pursuant to the law.

THOMPSON: So explain how one would acquire counsel if they don't know it?

[10:34:55] NIELSEN: We give them lists of available resources, legal resources in the area. We work closely with the NGOs to ensure that they understand the options for that. And then certainly, when they work with the consulates and embassies as part of that removal process, to receive the travel authorization, the embassies and consulates also provide them with information and an ability to access counsel.

THOMPSON: Some of us have been -- had an opportunity to see some of the enhanced barriers being placed on ports of entry. We tried to find a policy directive that said we should close lanes and put barriers on those -- concrete barriers and barbed wire. Are you familiar with any such policy?

NIELSEN: The general direction for the safety of the migrants and the officers who work at the ports of entry, is to ensure a controlled environment, particularly after we saw the violence from one of the caravans in the fall.

Many of the local border chiefs, border sector -- excuse me, the OFO officers at the ports determined what was needed to ensure that there was safety and security at the ports. So that's for the migrants, that's for the officers.

So generally speaking, that was done on a case-by-case situation, with the overall direction to ensure the integrity and safety of that area.

THOMPSON: So there's no written policy?

NIELSEN: It's not a policy, sir, per se, but the direction is clear. To protect officers and migrants and ensure a safe and orderly flow. To do that, we have to make sure that the migrants go through the designated area.

So the enhancements to the port of entry was to disable them from, at their own risk, which we have seen many times, run across lanes of traffic or try to go around a port of entry.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

The chair now recognizes the ranking member.

REP. MIKE ROGERS (R), ALABAMA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I want to follow up on something you referenced in your opening statement, and then the chairman probed you, to more fully understand this asylum-seeker circumstance.

You made reference in your statement, that for many of -- well, first of all, that 90 percent of the asylum seekers are denied when they actually finally have their hearing. The other -- and those 90 percent generally have already blended into the society, we can't get rid of them.

If we know only 10 percent are going to be approved based on history, I just don't understand why we're letting people in while they wait on their hearing. You made reference in your statement, that many of them are allowed to stay in Mexico until their hearing date.

My question is, why aren't all of them required to stay in Mexico until their hearing date? So that way, we can monitor them while they're here for their hearing. And if they're approved, they stay. If they can't, they go back to Mexico. Is that -- is that because of statutory reason or why?

NIELSEN: It's actually more based around, we're trying to do this in a very reasoned way. So we are expanding that program across the border. We work and notify the Mexicans as we do that.

You have seen statements made by their secretary -- their equivalent to Secretary Pompeo, and my equivalent -- that they are determined to protect their humanitarian rights. So we do it in conjunction with them, as we expand the program. We're doing it in a very systematic way. But the goal is to expand that across the border.

ROGERS: So you are trying to get to the point to where --

NIELSEN: Yes.

ROGERS: -- only people can get in for their hearing at the time of their hearing?

NIELSEN: Yes.

ROGERS: Excellent. What can we help you with to make that happen more rapidly?

NIELSEN: So we have all of the authority we need from the underlying INA statute. What we are looking for is additional requests, if any, that we need to come back to you with. This requires some new things.

For example, transportation from the ports to the courts. So when we have the court date, we will go back to the port to pick up the migrant, take he or she to the court. That is not a transportation need we've had in the past.

So that's just one example, but we are looking through to see if we can fund those, as we expand the program, with our current resources. If not, we would come back with a request.

ROGERS: My understanding is that the Mexican government has made available asylum to all asylum-seekers who have been coming from south of Mexico into the country, trying to get to the United States. Is that accurate?

NIELSEN: My understanding is, they have offered both asylum to the vast majority, if not all, of the migrants. But they have also offered work permits. ROGERS: So if somebody is fleeing Venezuela or Honduras because of

their concerns over safety, and they get into Mexico, by the time they get to Mexico's northern border to come into our country, there is no danger to them and their safety.

[10:39:58] NIELSEN: My plea to anybody that chooses to take this journey, is to please seek protection as soon in the journey as possible. It's an extraordinarily dangerous journey. So my advice to migrants throughout the region is, please accept protection as soon as possible.

ROGERS: OK. I'd like to give you some time. You've made reference to the Northern Triangle, that you -- in your opening statement, that you'd like to talk more about it. Would you tell us what you had in mind?

NIELSEN: Sure. So beginning about nine months ago, I had traveled to the region many times, between the border and the Northern Triangle in Mexico. I've been there about 25 times and have had multiple discussions with my partners in the Northern Triangle.

What we're working on together are ways to dismantle transnational criminal organizations, to identify the criminals who are preying on the vulnerable populations, to work with international organizations such as UNHCR to increase asylum capacity in the region.

To make sure that we're sharing information so we understand who is in the flow. That latter relates to the increases in special interest aliens that are in the flow.

And to make sure that we can keep families together. So how can we design a system that begins at the start, to make sure that migrants are protected and they don't need to take this dangerous journey.

ROGERS: Great. Do you know how much the smugglers charge people to get across the border, generally?

NIELSEN: So it varies. Our estimates -- and then most recently as last week, what we heard from Mexican counterparts is about $6,000 a migrant. It's more for families.

ROGERS: And to your knowledge, do they coach the migrants as to what to say when they get to the border, to be able to get in?

NIELSEN: We have seen instances, absolutely, throughout the region, where they are provided information on pieces of paper. There's also advertisements through social media, there's a WhatsApp conversation particular to this, to give them, if you will, specific words to claim credible fear once they reach our border.

ROGERS: Great. Thank you. My time has expired. I appreciate your service.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

The chair now recognizes the gentlelady from Texas, Ms. Jackson Lee. REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE (D), TEXAS: Let me thank the chairman and the

ranking member for holding this hearing, and the chairman's leadership on these issues.

Madam Secretary, let me thank you for your service. Over the past couple of months, I'm very proud of the members of this committee, particularly my colleagues on the Democratic side, who, almost every one, have been to the border because of their desire to be proficient and efficient on making the right decisions.

And so my knowledge of this committee has been that every single secretary of Homeland Security, I've had a terrific working relationship with regardless of the presidential politics or party. Because our commitment here is to secure the nation.

I believe if a horrific tragedy happens again, it is this committee and that in the Senate that'll be looked to by the American people to devise the right approach.

Do you believe that you, as secretary of Homeland Security, have the independence of the White House to make the right decisions? Can you independently make a decision and (ph) contrary to the president of the United States, on behalf of the American people for what is best for them?

NIELSEN: Ma'am, what I can tell you is I take my oath with utmost extreme importance. I always do my best --

JACKSON LEE: Is your oath to the American people or your oath to the president of the United States?

NIELSEN: No, ma'am. The oath, as you know, is to the Constitution and the people of the --

JACKSON LEE: Right. And in that -- in that vein, do you have the ability to make independent determinations?

NIELSEN: I do what I believe is best for the men and women of DHS and this country.

JACKSON LEE: And have you advised the president on his emergency declaration? Have you given him the grounds for this emergency declaration in the context of what "emergency" means?

NIELSEN: What I have done is, I've given him all the facts from the men and women working at the border, many of whom I know you all have met with, and thank you for that.

So what I do is, I give him the operational reality. "Here's what we're facing, here's what we're seeing, here are the facts," by my read of it. It is an emergency. It is a dual crisis. That's the information I provided (ph) --

JACKSON LEE: Well, if there's any data that you have given him in particular, I'm going to request that it be made available to this committee, whether in a classified setting or not, in writing. And if there have been any memos that you've directed to the president

that would have given him the basis of calling for, in my opinion, a false emergency declaration, I will not judge your data. If you're giving facts, then I would like that to be submitted to this committee.

Let me --

NIELSEN: Ma'am, if I could, I just -- I would be remiss if I didn't say, much of the information that I give in private to the president, of course, is covered under confidentiality privileges.

We're happy to give you any information that we work on from the operators. We're very transparent. Most of that information, as you know, is published at our website. Happy to give you that. But I would not be able to speak to any particular conversation I had with the president.

[10:45:06] JACKSON LEE: Well, I will not dwell on that. I will leave this to the chairman of the full committee, on the question of confidentiality. I think members of Congress are due classified information, and there's a question of confidentiality or privilege. I'm not sure what you're exerting here. But I would offer that --

NIELSEN: It's not mine to exert or (INAUDIBLE).

JACKSON LEE: Right. So I would say that I would want the material that you had provided to the president of the United States to make his decision.

Let me ask you, do you have a census of all of the children that are being detained in the various facilities, both the ones at the border and others that are in partnership with HHS? Do you know how many young people are detained?

NIELSEN: Yes, ma'am. I don't have that number in front of me. We have all the numbers --

JACKSON LEE: Would you provide that for me?

NIELSEN: Yes.

JACKSON LEE: The next question is, what is the pathway of reuniting those children detained? My number is about 12,000-plus. What is the pathway for reuniting those children presently existing in detention centers, who have been there for one year, two years, three years- plus?

NIELSEN: So the best data that we have is the data that's been approved from the Ms. L case. And I believe you all have access to that. I don't want to take up time unless you'd like me to, in reading it. But it walks through how many children remain in the custody --

JACKSON LEE: But can you give me a number for the record? NIELSEN: Yes. So there's -- it -- sure. It breaks down to -- of the

original 2,816 that the court identified, 2,735 (ph) have been discharged from --

JACKSON LEE: Right. But I'm asking you for those that are in the partnership between Homeland Security and HHS. You have centers around the nation, some run by Southwest Keys, upwards of 12,000 children. Have you tried to reunite them with some guardian or family member?

NIELSEN: Yes. So HHS, as you know, under TVPRA, is required to find a sponsor for the child. That's what they do. So that's -- that is part of --

(CROSSTALK)

JACKSON LEE: That is a program that I designed. And I believe that it should be in cooperation and I'm going to ask you on the record, not to give the answer now but I need to know the numbers and how many are being reunited.

Because ICE has represented that they are stopping those families from being reunited.

NIELSEN: ICE is not stopping families from being represented. There are three --

JACKSON LEE: Reunited.

NIELSEN: Reunited. There are three instances in longstanding practice, which CBP -- not ICE -- encounters a family unit presenting as a family unit, where separation may be necessary. The first one is if the adult accompanying that child is not a parent or a legal guardian. The second, if there is a risk to the child. And the third is if the parent otherwise needs to go to a custodial prosecutorial setting.

Longstanding process. The numbers are not high. Happy to provide them with you. But that is what CBP does at the border for the protection of the child.

JACKSON LEE: Mr. Chairman, thank you. I'll have questions for the record. Thank you. And the answers have not been given. Thank you so very much.

THOMPSON: Thank you very much.

HARLOW: A really important line of questioning, there, from the Democratic congresswoman, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, about the status of children detained at the border, undocumented. The number of children --

SCIUTTO: Yes.

HARLOW: -- which DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen says she did not have with her. But an important line of questioning as this hearing gets under way.

SCIUTTO: Yes, remarkable not to have that number handy, since it's obviously a focus of these investigations. She's also claiming privilege on any information she provided to the president on his decision to declare --

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: -- a national emergency --

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: -- at the border, which is interesting to note A lot more. We're going to continue to cover this story. We'll be right back.

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[10:53:10] HARLOW: All right.

SCIUTTO: Welcome back. Live pictures --

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: -- that's Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen of DHS, answering questions from the House Homeland Security Committee, now controlled by Democrats.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Already some tough questions. We're sure there are going to be more. We're going to continue to monitor.

Meanwhile we have Jessica Schneider, David Chalian, Ron Brownstein.

David Chalian, you know, that's actually a calmer start to this hearing than we might have expected --

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: -- at least. Some very measured questions there, including from the Democratic chairman and the ranking -- senior member, Sheila Jackson Lee.

But one point caught my attention. Sheila Jackson Lee zeroed in on the question of the national emergency declaration, and asked the secretary what information she provided the president to justify his emergency declaration, and she's claiming privilege on that information provided to the president. Is that notable?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Right. She actually said she's not claiming privilege because it's not hers to claim, but that she thinks her conversations --

SCIUTTO: Right.

CHALIAN: -- with the president -- HARLOW: Right.

CHALIAN: -- about this --

SCIUTTO: Are privileged, yes.

CHALIAN: -- would indeed be privileged and confidential. Sheila Jackson Lee also called her on that. Not only is she asking what was it she said about the emergency declaration to the president, but what documents she handed over, sort of as the foundation, the basis for this. She's requesting that Congress get to see those documents, even in a closed setting.

You heard Secretary Nielsen say, early on, Jim, though, that she pressed, this would not be the case -- the president wouldn't believe he needed to do this if Congress has funded the request initially, and he wouldn't need to move to emergency action.

So she still, once again, obviously, that ship has sailed. We had a government shutdown over it. But she's once again pressing for the actual appropriation of funds from Congress, which, to me, undermines the president's point here, and --

SCIUTTO: Yes.

CHALIAN: -- raises Congress' privilege and prerogative here.

[10:55:02] HARLOW: that's a great point, David Chalian.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

HARLOW: That's a great point.

Jess, one thing that Jim and I both sort of were startled to hear the moment she said it is, when Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas asked her for the number of children detained currently at the border, she said, "I don't have it in front of me. I'll get it to you."

I mean, the zero-tolerance policy, the detention of migrant children is a key, key thing that this administration has instituted and had to grapple with. And I'm interested in your reaction to her not having the numbers at this hearing.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, what's interesting, Poppy, is that she said, "I don't have it with me. I have it." But there is some question as to whether or not they do actually have those numbers.

Because you'll remember in January, the inspector general came forward and said that thousands more children had actually been separated from their families than previously revealed by Health and Human Services, and maybe DHS had some implications or some -- had some knowledge about how many had been separated as well.

So the question is, if she didn't have that number in front of her, she said "We have it." Do they actually have it? If they have it, do they have the right numbers? Because we know in the past --

SCIUTTO: Yes.

SCHNEIDER: -- HHS, at least, has made errors in how many children were actually separated. So it was quite shocking, that Secretary Nielsen, knowing that she'd probably be pressed on this point, didn't come with those numbers in hand.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

Ron, just quickly before we go, this happens as both chambers, you know -- well, now, the Senate, going to vote on the national emergency declaration.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Is this -- is the secretary going to change any minds here, on that? Because it appears that Republicans, even, are going to give enough votes to -- to oppose.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, I don't think so. First of all, Jim, I think this hearing is exactly what Democratic voters had in mind when they talked about more oversight last fall. I can't think of any issue that was more symbolic of the need for greater oversight than the child separation.

But, no, I don't think so. And it's not clear how much the president is really concerned about both chambers voting --

SCIUTTO: Yes.

BROWNSTEIN: -- to overturn the emergency declaration. In the sense that if you listen to his CPAC speech on Saturday, I thought the key three words were, "I'll protect you," at one point.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

BROWNSTEIN: And he kept saying things, "I will defend you."

SCIUTTO: Yes.

BROWNSTEIN: And the idea of him standing alone against both parties may be something that he wants. On the other hand, a majority of the country -- clear majority -- opposes the emergency declaration, and a congressional vote will probably reinforce that opinion.

SCIUTTO: A member of the GOP convention, "I alone," right? You (ph) hear (ph) --

HARLOW: Can fix it.

BROWNSTEIN: I alone.

SCIUTTO: -- the phrase so many times.

Jessica, David, Ron, thanks very much. HARLOW: All right. So we're going to continue to watch Secretary

Nielsen testifying here on Capitol Hill. Stay with us for the latest.

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[11:00:05] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. A lot happening today on Capitol Hill, and it is all about the president.