WASHINGTON — The chief of the Homeland Security Department has told members of Congress that the government is “on track” to meet Thursday’s court-ordered deadline of reuniting hundreds of migrant children with their families, lawmakers who met privately with her said.
Wednesday’s assertion by Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was greeted with open disbelief and anger, according to many of the roughly 20 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus — all Democrats — who attended.
“She said they believe they’re on track” to meet the deadline, said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., one of several lawmakers who said she used that phrase to describe the status of reuniting separated families. They said she provided no statistics to back up her assertion.
“That’s impossible. And we all said this to her,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said in a brief interview that he told Nielsen “she is committing crimes against humanity, that she is a child abuser” and that she is “an accomplice of Donald Trump’s racist regime.”
The hour-long meeting came a day before the Thursday deadline that U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego has set for reuniting children age 5 and older that have been held by the government after their families were caught entering the country without authorization.
As many as 2,551 children age 5 and up were separated from their families and 1,187 children have been reunified with parents, guardians or sponsors, the government has said. But the exact number still separated is unclear.
The separations have caused a bipartisan, nationwide uproar against Trump’s policy of “zero tolerance,” in which the government prosecutes all migrants entering the U.S. illegally.
The government initially separated children from their detained parents or guardians. Under pressure, Trump abandoned the family separation policy but hundreds of children remain apart from their parents in conditions that visitors have described as horrid.
Nielsen ignored reporters’ questions when she left the meeting.
“Very productive. Very frank,” she said.
The lawmakers said Nielsen also told them her agency is financing the costs of detaining families with a 1 percent across-the-board cut to its programs.