Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen departs after the Republican Caucus luncheon, Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Washington.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen departs after the Republican Caucus luncheon, Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Washington.

WASHINGTON - A House panel on Wednesday grilled Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for the first time since Democrats took control of the chamber, and panel’s chairman said oversight of Trump administration’s border policies is long overdue.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson said he wanted to use the hearing in part to give Nielsen the opportunity to start a “serious discussion,” rather than echoing Trump’s claims of a security crisis at the border.

Nielsen told the lawmakers the crisis was not manufactured — tens of thousands of families are crossing the border illegally every month, straining resources. Last month, there were more than 76,000 migrants apprehended — it was more than double the same period last year. And she said the forecast is that the problem will grow worse as weather gets better; traditionally the early spring months see higher illegal crossings.

A U.S. border patrol boat rescues migrants crossing the Rio Bravo towards the United States, seen from Piedras Negras, Mexico, February 10, 2019.
Record-Breaking Family Migration Overwhelming US Border Agency
The number of migrant families crossing the southwest border is again breaking records, and the crush is overwhelming border agents and straining facilities, officials said Tuesday.More than 76,000 migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border last month, more than double the number from the same period last year.Most were families coming in ever-increasingly large groups — there were 70 groups of more than 100 people in the past few months, and they cross illegally in extremely rural locations with few…

“Make no mistake: This chain of human misery is getting worse,” she said.

The new figures reflect the difficulties President Donald Trump has faced as he tries to cut down on illegal immigration, his signature issue. But it could also help him make the case that there truly is a national emergency at the border — albeit one built around humanitarian crises and not necessarily border security.

The Senate is expected to vote next week and join the House in rejecting his national emergency declaration aimed at building border walls, but Trump would almost certainly veto the measure and the issue is likely to be settled in the courts.

Nielsen was asked whether she had helped Trump decide on the national emergency.

“So what I do is, I give him the operational reality, here’s what we’re facing, here’s what we’re seeing,” she said.

The hearing is one of three at the Capitol on border issues Wednesday. Since Democrats took control of the House, they have prioritized investigating last year’s family separations and have subpoenaed documents related to the policy.