Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, under fire for her vigorous defense of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy that has led to family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border, recast the issue Thursday as one about the large number of unaccompanied minors currently in government custody.
"This is a national security issue," Nielsen told a crowd at the 2018 Capitol Hill National Security Forum. "Obviously we are all focused in recent weeks on unaccompanied children and others who migrate across but unfortunately our loopholes encourage that behavior."
"I want to be very clear here: of the 12,000 UACs that are currently housed within HHS facilities, 10,000 are unaccompanied, which means 10,000 of those kids were sent here, without a parent, without a legal guardian in the hands of smugglers, in the hands of traffickers," she said.
Nielsen was referring to new numbers from the Department of Health and Human Services that show, as of June 19, 81.3 percent of children’s status upon arrival is unaccompanied at the border, and 18.7 percent is separated from a legal guardian.
"These children, some of them were raped, they’re abused," she said. "Many of them come, they’re already recruited into a gang because that was the only way they could survive the travel. This is not only a humanitarian issue."
Looming over her remarks was her controversial response to the immigration crisis at the border, and her role as the public face of the Trump administration's immigration policy under which every adult who crossed the border illegally was criminally prosecuted, leading to children being separated from their parents.
"We have done everything that we can do within the executive branch to both secure our borders, uphold our ideals and protects our communities but we need Congress to act," she asserted.
In her first remarks since the president signed the executive order ending family separations, Nielsen reinforced the White House’s approach to confronting the immigration crisis by calling on Congress to act.
"What the president did yesterday is to try to make clear that what we don’t need to do as Americans is pit the enforcement of law against our humanitarian ideas," she said. "So we need to both at the same time. So what he tried to do is enable us to do that until Congress acts."
"I want to be very clear on this: Congress has the authority and responsibility to make the law of the land and to fix the immigration system," she added.
Turning up the pressure on Congress, Nielsen shared her support for a bill proposed by Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and House Homeland Security Committee chairman, who questioned her at the forum.
"There is a lot coming across the border that we need to fix," she expressed. "What this legislation would let us do is actually secure the border. It would give us the resources, everything from infrastructure through to personnel through to technology to really have a wall system as a first line of defense."
Speaking directly to the congressman, she said, "What your bill helps us do is help those in need, stop the abuse, protect the United States and our communities by not letting gangs and dangerous criminals in, and reduce the flow of drugs. It will be a monumental increase moving forward to prevent these threats."
After the event concluded, Nielsen underscored her belief that Congress is accountable for closing "immigration loopholes" that she suggested are causing the crisis at the border.