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Homeland Security Secretary Defends National Emergency Declaration


The Trump administration says record-breaking numbers of migrants are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. It is a 10-year high, not an all-time high. The administration also says these numbers amount to a crisis, that that justifies a national emergency declaration and that a border wall would help. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was on Capitol Hill today making the case to lawmakers.


KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: This is not a manufactured crisis. This is truly an emergency.

KELLY: Nielsen was met with skepticism from Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee. The backdrop to this is the House has voted to block the president's national emergency, and the Senate appears likely to follow suit.

Well, let's bring in NPR's Joel Rose, who is tracking all of this, including today's hearing. Hey, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So these record-breaking numbers of migrants - I want to start there. The number is 76,000 migrants crossing without authorization last month, February. And I want you to help me square it because on the one hand, it's a record-breaking number. On the other hand, it's still nowhere near the historic levels of arrests for illegal crossings that we've seen in past years - for example, back during the Clinton administration.

ROSE: Right. You know, it used to be routine for more than 76,000 people to be apprehended crossing the border. We're talking, like, 10, 15 years ago, it was routine for more than a million people to be apprehended a year. We are way below those totals today. So when you hear people express skepticism, that's why. I mean, the total number of people being apprehended crossing the border is much lower.

We haven't seen this many people in a month, though, in about 10 years. And in that sense, it is a big jump from recent history. There's also a record number of migrant families - more than 20,000 family members per month. Also unaccompanied children are at a high level. And many of them will ask for asylum in the U.S. So it's a really different migrant flow than it used to be.

KELLY: Well, how did Secretary Nielsen talk about these numbers at the hearing today? What was her big message she was trying to impart?

ROSE: She talked about the difference in who these migrants are today versus 20 years ago. And she said it's putting an unprecedented strain on their resources.


NIELSEN: The problem is not just the vastly increasing numbers - and again, we jumped another 30 percent from last month. But it's the type of migrant that our system is not set up to protect. Originally it was single adults from Mexico. Now it's mostly Central Americans, and the vast majority are vulnerable populations, which are families and children. All of that together is a crisis because the system is not built for that type of flow.

KELLY: Joel, I want to focus you on the language she was using there - that reference again there to calling the situation a crisis. Critics, including many of the Democrats questioning Nielsen today, argue even if this is a humanitarian crisis, it is not a national security emergency. How did Nielsen talk about that today?

ROSE: They are seeing large groups of migrants - over a hundred people at a time - arriving at the border all together to try to turn themselves in to Border Patrol. They're arriving sometimes in remote, in rugged parts of the border. Sometimes they're crossing rivers or waterways, sneaking over or under the border fence. And then the Border Patrol agents, once they're apprehended, will have to scramble to transport them back to a substation where they can get medical screenings and food. And Nielsen argues that all of this is drawing resources away from the real mission of the Border Patrol, which should be securing the border. And that's how you - you know, you get to national security implications.

KELLY: OK, let me turn you to the question of a wall and to what extent a border wall might prevent or solve any of these problems.


NIELSEN: The idea in part of the wall is actually to ensure a safe and orderly flow so that migrants who choose to come here come through a legal port of entry where they can be cared for. That's where their resources are. That's where we can provide them the best medical care. And that's where we can most quickly process their claim.

KELLY: The criticism of that argument from Democrats and others has been that the Trump administration has actually made it harder to cross at legal ports of entry.

ROSE: Well, exactly. You know, many of the migrants who are crossing are crossing already in areas that have border barriers and then trying to turn themselves in to border patrol. But as you say, critics also say the administration may be making the situation worse by limiting the number of migrants who can request asylum at official ports of entry. This is a practice called metering, where the Department of Homeland Security has limited the number of crossers to, you know, a fixed number per day, in fact sometimes a very small number at some ports of entry - just a few families per day.

If you look at the numbers, as the number of illegal border crossings has fluctuated up and down over the last few months, the number of crossings at ports of entry has been remarkably stable. It's almost exactly 10,000 a month. So it really suggests that there is a hard cap here that immigration officials are sticking to. And Democrats argue that's pushing these migrants to cross in more remote, more dangerous locations, you know, which is what we've definitely been seeing over the last few months.

KELLY: I want to ask you about one more thing, the family separation policy. This has been out of the headlines for a little while now. This was the policy that was widely criticized, then rescinded. I gather it was very much a topic of questioning today. How so?

ROSE: Yeah. A lot of Democrats wanted to return to 2018 and talk about what happened and, you know, who knew what and when. And Kirstjen Nielsen defended the policy again, as she has before. She says the administration was simply enforcing the law when it separated children from parents who were charged with crimes under the administration's zero tolerance policy last year. Democrats pushed her on her role in crafting that policy, whether she considered what it would mean for the migrants, especially for the children who were affected. Here is Lauren Underwood, a Democratic representative from Illinois.


LAUREN UNDERWOOD: Were you aware that the trauma of family separation is connected to something called toxic stress?

NIELSEN: I have - I'm not familiar with that term, no.

UNDERWOOD: OK. Were you aware that toxic stress can actually change a child's brain because it's still developing?

NIELSEN: I wasn't familiar with the term.

UNDERWOOD: OK. Were you aware that the traumatic effects don't go away even if a child is reunited with their family?

NIELSEN: I understand that they are - no.

KELLY: Some very awkward questioning there and I suppose a reminder that this is the first time Kirstjen Nielsen has testified on the Hill since Democrats took control of the House. It was a different audience than she has faced there before.

ROSE: That's right. I mean, and you heard some questioning there from a member of Congress who wasn't a member the last time Nielsen testified as well.

KELLY: NPR's Joel Rose - thank you very much, Joel.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.