Kirstjen Nielsen spars with House Dems on oversight as Trump's immigration team pushes back

  • In Politics
  • 2019-01-30 17:11:43Z

House Democrats' first attempts at oversight of President Donald Trump's immigration enforcement team have been rocky, with a second agency head in as many weeks turning down invitations to testify before congressional committees.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, the new head of the House Homeland Security Committee, accused Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen of refusing to testify before his committee, saying she used the government shutdown as an "unreasonable and outrageous" excuse to skip the Feb. 6 hearing.

"As (secretary) you should be prepared to testify on border security, the very issue that caused the recent shutdown, at any time and certainly prior to the potential February 15 lapse in appropriations," Thompson wrote in a letter to Nielsen.

Nielsen's press secretary countered by saying she had accepted the invitation to testify, just not on that date. Homeland Security press secretary Tyler Houlton said Nielsen offered alternate dates, and labeled Thompson's letter as "misleading."

"Such missives are unproductive and unhelpful in sustaining comity between the Committee and the Department," Houlton said in a statement.

The flap, played out in dueling public statements Tuesday night, shows the difficulty Democrats will face as they try to follow through on their vows to investigate Trump's immigration enforcers and conduct oversight of an administration that has been warning since the November election of congressional overreach.

Democratic leaders have plenty to look into, including the administration "zero tolerance" policy that led to thousands of families being separated along the southern border last summer, its efforts to unilaterally limit asylum for Central American families, the death of two Guatemalan children in Border Patrol custody, and other aspects of Trump's myriad efforts to limit both legal and illegal immigration.

Ur Jaddou, director of DHS Watch, an advocacy group that monitors the government's actions on immigration, said exploring all those controversies won't be easy. Agency heads have never enjoyed oversight hearings headed by the opposition party, she said, but Trump administration officials have shown a unique disdain for the practice.

Jaddou gave the example of a federal judge's order that forced the administration to reunite more than 2,500 migrant children separated from their parents last summer. Even in the face of a judicial mandate, Jaddou said Justice and Homeland Security officials consistently slow-walked the reunification process, leading to repeated admonishments from U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw.

"That is a clear example of how far they're willing to take their obstinance to any kind of oversight," she said. "The same thing will happen with Congress. (Democrats) are going to have to use the power they have to make these things happen."

More: Democrats hit snags in push to put witnesses like Michael Cohen, Steve Mnuchin and Alex Azar in hot seat

More: How Donald Trump's relationship with Nancy Pelosi changes everything in Washington

The battle over Nielsen's testimony is just the latest sign of a Trump administration that won't easily give in to Democratic demands.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar turned down a request from the House Energy and Commerce Committee to answer questions about family separations along the border. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin turned down a request from the House Ways and Means Committee to discuss impacts of the partial government shutdown, with a spokesman saying the committee would be better served by testimony from department officials who could provide the "deepest and broadest expertise" on the workings of the department.

As for Nielsen, she last appeared before Congress when she testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 20 - its last meeting under Republican control. During that hearing, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., now chairman of the committee, warned Nielsen that her days of operating with impunity were about to end.

"I want to put you and the department on notice: The time for accountability has arrived," Nadler said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kirstjen Nielsen spars with House Dems on oversight as Trump's immigration team pushes back


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