After months of outrage over the Trump administration detaining migrant children in "cages," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen insisted to members of Congress on Wednesday, "We don't use cages for children."
"I've seen the cages. I just want you to admit that the cages exist."
—Rep. Bennie Thompson
At a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Wednesday, Nielsen took questions from Democratic lawmakers enraged over the administration's policies of forcibly separating families to deter future asylum-seekers and locking up migrant children in facilities described as cages by reporters, lawmakers, and immigrant rights advocates.
Since last summer, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has maintained that the U.S. government does not detain migrants in "inhumane fenced cages," despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary. Faced with intense lines of questioning from Democrats on Wednesday, Nielsen stuck to DHS's party line.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the committee's chairman, repeatedly asked Nielsen whether U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), an arm of DHS, was "still putting children in cages."
"Sir, we don't use cages for children," Nielsen said. "To my knowledge, CBP never purposely put a child in a cage."
"I've seen the cages. I just want you to admit that the cages exist," declared a visibly frustrated Thompson. The secretary continued to claim, "Sir, they're not cages."
"We're not going to go through the semantics," Thompson told her. "I saw the cyclone fences that were made as cages—and you did too. All you have to do is admit it. If it's a bad policy, then change it. But don't mislead the committee."
Rep. Bennie Thompson: "We're not going to go through the semantics... I saw the cyclone fences that were made as cages – and you did too. All you have to do is admit it. If it's a bad policy, then change it. But don't mislead the Committee." https://t.co/xLSgpvpV4L pic.twitter.com/gWQtQEHRta
— ABC News (@ABC) March 6, 2019
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) also grilled Nielsen about federal immigration officials detaining migrant children, asking her how the cages used in detention centers by the Trump administration differed from dog kennels:
WATSON COLEMAN: What does a chain-link fence enclosed into a chamber on a concrete floor represent to you? Is that a cage?
NIELSEN: It's a detention space, ma'am, that you know has existed for decades.
WATSON COLEMAN: Does it differ from the cages you put your dogs in when you let them stay outside? Is it different?
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WATSON COLEMAN: In what sense?
NIELSEN: It's larger. It has facilities. It provides room to sit, to stand, to lay down.
WATSON COLEMAN: So did my dog's cage.
WATSON COLEMAN: [Do the cages immigrants kids are kept in upon first being detained] differ from the cages you put your dogs in when you let them stay outside?
WC: In what sense?
NIELSEN: It’s larger. pic.twitter.com/iugTszoWK7
— Melanie Schmitz (@MelsLien) March 6, 2019
Critics quickly pushed back against Nielsen's claims, with MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff sharing his report from a facility in Texas last summer: