This post has been updated with a statement from Secretary Nielsen.
As he headed into a meeting with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) vowed to “hold her feet to the fire” on the Trump administration’s family separation policy.
“If she thought she was uncomfortable trying to eat in a restaurant in Washington D.C., that will be nothing compared to the heat she will face when we speak today,” he said, referring to a recent incident where Nielsen was heckled by protesters at an upscale Mexican joint near the White House. “We need answers, not just ourselves but for the American people and for those children. ”
But after meeting for more than an hour with Nielsen, Gutierrez and the other the members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus told reporters they remain largely in the dark on the Trump administration’s efforts to locate and reunite hundreds of parents and children by a court’s Thursday deadline.
“We didn’t get very many concrete answers,” Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) lamented following the closed-door meeting. “What’s happening in immigration custody, whether or not the family separation issue continues in any format, whether the Department of Justice maintains a zero tolerance policy, whether or not there has been any real harm to children and families at the border. We did not resolve any of those issues.”
Speaking in Spanish, the lawmakers had even harsher words for Nielsen.
“Unfortunately, just like we saw with Secretary [John] Kelly a few months ago, she came here with pure rhetoric. Pure rhetoric and no solutions,” Rep. Rubén Kihuen (D-NV) told reporters. “We left today’s meeting with zero answers. They promised us that no more families will be separated, but that is contrary to what we are hearing.”
In a statement to TPM, Nielsen responded to these criticisms by describing the meeting as a “productive and frank conversation about our broken immigration system.”
“As always, I am committed to meeting with any Member of Congress in good faith to be transparent about the Administration’s border security efforts, to address their concerns and to discuss lasting solutions,” she said. “Only Congress can change the laws, and I look forward to continuing to work with them to fix our decades-long immigration crisis.”
In a federal courtroom on Tuesday night, attorneys representing the Trump administration told U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw that it has not yet identified the parents of nearly 40 of the separated migrant children in custody, and has not yet located and contact hundreds more. Of the more than 460 parents it says are no longer in the United States, it was unable to say how many were forcibly deported and how many signed “voluntary removal” papers, and how many were deported with their children versus alone.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued the Trump administration to force the reunification of separated families, says it has had difficulty getting information from the government as well — particularly the names of the parents who have been deported and those who have been released by ICE into the U.S. interior.
“The Trump administration’s lack of transparency is now bordering on stonewalling,” grumbled Lee Gelernt, the ACLU’s lead attorney in the class action lawsuit, after the court hearing Tuesday night.
The ACLU and members of Congress are also demanding information about the parents who allegedly signed forms waiving their right to be reunified with their children. The Trump administration told Judge Sabraw that there are at least 127 such parents, though it admitted the number continues to be in flux. Attorneys and lawmakers are particularly seeking to know what information these parents were given when they signed the forms, and whether they were unlawfully pressured to do so.
“I met with a woman in Chicago from Africa who went through a four-month separation from her daughter,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) told reporters on Wednesday. “She was given those impossible choices and no legal counsel. She started signing papers in every direction. People get desperate. When their children’s welfare is in question, they give up every right they have, even if they have a legitimate claim to asylum.”