Representative Lauren Underwood (D., Ill.) on Wednesday accused the acting Department of Homeland Security secretary of intentionally implementing border-security policies that would lead to the deaths of migrant children.
During his appearance before the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday, Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan was asked to explain why five children have died in federal custody after being apprehended at the southern border since December.
"These stories are appalling and yet they keep happening," Underwood said, referring to the recent migrants deaths, as well as reports of inadequate housing and medical care for migrant children apprehended at the border. "Now Congress just provided half a billion dollars in February to address the humanitarian crisis at the border and will soon provide more. Why do these tragedies keep happening?"
McAleenan, who succeeded Kirstjen Nielsen in April, responded that the resources provided by Congress are insufficient to address the record number of asylum seekers, many of whom are women and children, arriving at the border each day.
"They're happening because the crisis is exceeding the resources provided. That's why we've asked for more and we've asked for more authority to prevent this crisis from happening in the first place and to prevent the children from being placed at risk," he said.
Underwood, a 32-year-old freshman lawmaker, dismissed McAleenan's claims, suggesting instead that he was implementing policies intended to result in the death of children.
"People keep dying, sir. People keep dying. So, this is obviously more than a question of resources," she said. "Congress has been more than willing to provide the resources and work with you to address the security and humanitarian concerns, but at this point, with five kids that have died, 5,000 separated from their families, I feel like - and the evidence is really clear - that this is intentional. It's a policy choice being made on purpose by this administration and it's cruel and inhumane."
"That's an appalling accusation and our men and women fight hard to protect people in our custody every single day," McAleenan responded.
Republicans on the panel reacted forcefully to Underwood's assertion. The ranking Republican on the committee, Representative Mike Rogers (R., Mich.) called for a vote to strike her comments from the record. The vote passed 9-7.
"You cannot impugn the character of the witness by stating that he intentionally murders children. That is completely inappropriate and her words should be taken down," Rogers said during the hearing. "She was very explicit."
"It's absolutely disheartening to see some radical Democrats stoop so low to say that the Acting DHS Secretary McAleenan is murdering children. McAleenan left the private sector to serve his country after the towers fell on 9/11. This is a sad day for America and the Democrat party," Representative Mark Green (R., Tenn.) said in a statement provided to National Review.
On Monday, 16-year-old Carlos Hernandez Vasquez became the fifth migrant child to die in federal custody in the last six months.
Vasquez crossed into the U.S. without his parents and died of the flu at a Border Patrol station in Weslaco, Texas after spending a week in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CPB). His death has drawn scrutiny from Democratic lawmakers, who have pointed out that policy dictates he should have been transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within 72 hours of his apprehension.
"Make no mistake: This is a pattern of death. This is an epidemic of death by the Trump administration," Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas told reporters during a press conference Tuesday. "As I mentioned, nobody had died for ten years. And in the last six months, you've had five deaths."
The Trump administration has for months urged Congress to provide resources for medical care and the construction of housing units that can accommodate the new asylum-seekers arriving at the southern border. The existing detention centers lack the capacity to handle the record influx and were built to accommodate the mostly single men who formerly comprised most of the illegal-migrant population.
The administration has also urged Congress to reform the asylum system through legislation in order to limit the number of migrants who must be detained on U.S. soil while their claims are being adjudicated.