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Citing 'Abysmal Record on Human Rights,' Amnesty Makes Rare Demand to Halt Wolf's Nomination as DHS Chief

Wolf appeared before a Senate panel after a federal judge ruled last week he is likely unlawfully serving as the department's acting secretary.

Department of Homeland Security acting Secretary Chad Wolf testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on September 23, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images)

Department of Homeland Security acting Secretary Chad Wolf testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on September 23, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images)

Amnesty International USA on Wednesday issued a rare call to halt the nomination of acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf to permanently take on the role "unless and until all information relevant to Wolf's involvement in human rights violations—including the family separations policy—is fully and thoroughly investigated."

"From proposing the separation of families to recklessly detaining tens of thousands of people during a global pandemic to deploying DHS forces to 'dominate' civil rights protesters, Wolf has an abysmal record on human rights."
—Charanya Krishnaswami, Amnesty International
Charanya Krishnaswami, Americas advocacy director at Amnesty, explained that her group generally doesn't take a position on individual government appointments but is calling on the Senate to investigate Wolf "given the gravity and range of rights abuses that have taken place during his leadership at the Department of Homeland Security."

Wolf has overseen DHS on a temporary basis since November 2019. The department has been without a Senate-confirmed leader since former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen's April 2019 resignation.

"From proposing the separation of families to recklessly detaining tens of thousands of people during a global pandemic to deploying DHS forces to 'dominate' civil rights protesters, Wolf has an abysmal record on human rights," Krishnaswami said Wednesday, noting that "internal emails show Wolf was directly involved in the decision-making process that led the administration to implement family separation to deter people from seeking safety."

The acting secretary "has expanded and defended the 'Remain in Mexico' policy, which has sent tens of thousands of people to dangerous and precarious conditions in Mexico while they seek asylum in the United States," she said. Wolf has also "aided the administration in weaponizing the pandemic to expel tens of thousands of asylum-seekers, families, and children in plain violation of asylum and anti-trafficking laws."

Krishnaswami continued:

Wolf has also presided over one of the deadliest years in immigration detention on record, keeping tens of thousands of people jailed arbitrarily and indefinitely during a global pandemic, where at least eight have died of Covid-19. Instead of releasing families from detention facilities, his department has sought to introduce family separation by asking parents to consider choosing to remain detained together indefinitely in dangerous conditions or separate from their children.

Wolf has served as the public face of DHS's protest deployments, justifying and publicly defending his officers' excessive use of force and unwanted presence in cities like Portland. Amnesty International USA has documented how federal agents working for DHS contributed to human rights abuses committed against Black Lives Matter protesters this summer, including medics, monitors, and members of the media.

The group's call came as Wolf appeared before Republican-controlled Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday morning. He was introduced at the hearing by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). President Donald Trump nominated Wolf to serve as secretary in late August, despite recent findings by the Government Accountability Office that Wolf's appointment to his current post violated federal law.

In mid-August, a report by the GAO found that Kevin McAleenan, who initially replaced Nielsen, "had not been designated in the order of succession," and "because the incorrect official assumed the title of acting secretary at that time, subsequent amendments to the order of succession made by that official were invalid," which applies to Wolf's appointment.

A DHS spokesperson told The Hill in August that "we wholeheartedly disagree with the GAO's baseless report." However, last week in a case challenging the Trump administration's asylum restrictions, a federal judge in Maryland ruled that advocacy groups are "likely to demonstrate" that Wolf's installation as head of DHS was invalid, so he didn't have the authority to impose the rules.

CNN reported Wednesday that "in response to the GAO and federal court filings, the department affirmed and ratified previous DHS actions carried out during Wolf's tenure as acting secretary, according to a Federal Register notice on Monday. Wolf wrote that the ratification was done 'out an abundance of caution,' given the challenges to his appointment."

During Wolf's tenure as acting secretary, DHS and agencies under the department—particularly U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—have faced intense criticism from human rights and immigration advocacy groups, including Amnesty, who reiterated their opposition to his nomination ahead of Wednesday's hearing.

In a letter (pdf) Tuesday to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) also called on members of the upper chamber to oppose Wolf's nomination. They wrote that "based on Mr. Wolf's track record it is clear he is unfit to serve as the Department of Homeland Security Secretary."

The opposition from advocacy groups and lawmakers, along with the Senate hearing, came as NBC News reported early Wednesday that the consulting firm where the acting secretary's wife, Hope Wolf, is an executive has been awarded over $6 million in contracts from DHS since September 2018. The report noted that Chad Wolf became chief of staff at the Transportation Security Administration, a DHS agency, in 2017, and Nielsen's chief of staff the following year.

A DHS spokesperson told NBC that "at no time in any of his positions since joining DHS has Acting Secretary Wolf been involved in awarding any contracts," and "even if he were involved with the procurement process for this particular contract, which he was not, he would have had to recuse himself due to even the appearance of impropriety."

However, the revelation still sparked calls for further investigation. "After Mr. Wolf joined DHS, it began pumping millions of dollars into his wife's firm, which also happens to be his largest financial asset," Kyle Herrig, founder and president of watchdog group Accountable.US, told the news outlet. "The arrangement is highly problematic and warrants congressional scrutiny."

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