Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was caught in a series of heated exchanges with House lawmakers Wednesday while being questioned over family separations at the border, with one Democrat accusing her of having “no feeling, no compassion.”
Nielsen was speaking to the House Homeland Security Committee when she was pressed by members of the Democratic majority over claims that the Trump administration went out of its way to separate families.
“I think it’s really important, Madam Secretary, that you talk about it and you use the right language. This was not the law, okay,” Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., said. “This was a policy that the attorney general of this country announced was a new policy that they were going to rip kids away from their parents. So I think it’s very important that the record reflect that.”
Nielsen turned to the committee's chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., asking to respond before being interrupted that she should “do it in writing.”
“The AG memo that was issued directed all U.S. attorneys offices along the southwest border to prosecute all adults who were referred for prosecution, that’s what it did,” Nielsen managed to say.
“That is a policy,” Rice said. “But not as you described it,” Nielsen replied.
Rice continued: “That is a policy. When you knew that that policy was going to result in children having to be taken away from their parents, that’s a policy. You should admit it.”
Nielsen said any separations were a “consequence” of illegal activity and not the intent of the law.
“The consequence of any adult going to jail in this country is, they’re separated from their child, that wasn’t the point of it. The point was to increase prosecutions for those breaking the law and not exempt any class of aliens.”
Prior to the heated exchange between Rice and Nielsen, she was grilled by Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., over her initial handling of the separations, claiming Nielsen was either “lying” or unaware of “what’s happening at the border.”
"You said you waited to give direction on how to implement the zero-tolerance policy because you wanted to do it with compassion," she said. "Do you know how outrageous that sounds?"
Barragán fired a line of questions at Nielsen.
“Would you like me to answer any of your questions, because I would be happy to do so,” Nielsen said after repeated interruptions.
"You have no feeling, no compassion, no empathy here," Barragán finished.
President Trump declared a national emergency over border security last month after Congress passed a spending bill authorization $1.4 billion for barriers on the border -- well short of the $5.7 billion Trump had demanded.
Trump’s declaration would give him access to about $3.6 billion for projects on the border, but the move has seen fierce opposition from Democrats and some Republicans, several of whom are expected to support a congressional rebuke of the emergency declaration -- which could, in turn, prompt Trump's first-ever veto. The House already has passed the measure.
Fox News’ Adam Shaw contributed to this report.