Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on "Trump Administration's Child Separation Policy" on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 18, 2019.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on "Trump Administration's Child Separation Policy" on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 18, 2019.

VOA NewsCenter reporter Saqib Ul Islam contributed to this report from Washington.

The top U.S. Homeland Security official defended his agency's treatment of detained migrants and unaccompanied children on the U.S.-Mexico border during a hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill.

Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan fielded questions from members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee about unhygienic conditions, prolonged detentions, agents' impropriety, and how DHS handled an increase in people — largely families and children — crossing into the U.S. without authorization.

"I understand that there's a debate about why we're where we are," Congressman John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, told McAleenan at the hearing. "But there cannot be any debate, and I assume you agree, that when you're dealing with children, there are basic standards, humanitarian standards, when it comes to their treatment that need to be followed."

Border funding

McAleenan said that only with billions of dollars in additional funding from Congress was his agency able to improve the conditions for child migrants at the border, in the midst of a historic increase in families and minors earlier this year.

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"I could not agree more that overcrowding of children in our facilities is not an appropriate situation or result. … Within weeks of receiving that funding, we've reduced our in-custody population of children from a high of near 2,700 to about 350 at the end of the day yesterday [July 17], from over 1,200 kids that were with us for more than 72 hours, to fewer than 50 at the end of the day yesterday," McAleenan told the committee. "So, I agree with you — we need to take ownership of the care and custody of children at the border, but we need Congress' help to do that. And as soon as we got it, we applied it effectively and urgently."

But the additional money is only one variable in the increasingly complicated migration equation in the U.S.

It was McAleenan's sixth time testifying on Capitol Hill since April, when he took over what is arguably the highest-profile role in President Donald Trump's Cabinet.

He previously served as the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

McAleenan assumed his current position just as the number of arriving families and children peaked, before tapering off in June — a direct result, McAleenan said at the hearing, of an agreement with Mexico to bolster its migration enforcement and allow fewer people to pass through the country en route to the United States.

FILE - Members of the Border Patrol and U.S. military talk with migrants who illegally crossed the border between Mexico and the U.S. to request political asylum, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, July 6, 2019.

Under fire

DHS and its subagencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are under intense public scrutiny. Last week, ProPublica uncovered impropriety by border agents on social media, launching an internal investigation within CBP. 

In June, media reports and internal government investigations lambasted substandard conditions at Border Patrol facilities, calling attention to overcrowded shelters and excessive periods of detention — in some cases for months.

One DHS inspector general's report quoted a Border Patrol center manager as saying poor conditions were a "ticking time bomb, regarding staff security."

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An Associated Press story about another Border Patrol shelter that housed children in Texas raised concerns over sanitation and illness, prompting the relocation of hundreds of children to facilities run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency tasked with longer-term care for unaccompanied minors.

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Amnesty report

But a report published late Wednesday by human rights watchdog Amnesty International called into question the quality of care migrant teens receive at such a shelter in Florida.

Thousands of children ages 13 to 17 were living at the Homestead "temporary influx" center run by ORR when Amnesty officials visited in April.

Many children have since been relocated to other facilities. But the organization, and several lawmakers who visited Homestead, want to ensure such large facilities with robust restrictions on the children are dismantled in favor of smaller shelters that can provide a more supportive environment while relatives are located and vetted.

"The cost to the taxpayer of keeping a child at Homestead is three times the cost of keeping them in one of the more permanent shelters that do offer better conditions, less-restrictive settings," said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, on a call with reporters and congressional staffers Thursday.

"It absolutely is in everyone's best interest — first and foremost, the child, but also the taxpayers — that we close this facility down and we find better, better facilities who are more equipped to care for the children going forward," Huang said.

FILE - Children line up to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla., Feb. 19, 2019.


Hours later, as McAleenan testified before Congress, demonstrators gathered outside the offices of the Department of Health and Human Services, several blocks southwest of the Capitol building.

Lisa Rubinstein, a retiree who worked in children's mental health and was an HHS employee for 19 years, said she joined Thursday's protest so her work and those of her former colleagues does not go to waste.

"I feel like right now the administration is traumatizing children. And really, it just hurts my heart to see all the great work that's been going on, and now we're actually traumatizing them," she said at the rally. "They are going to be impacted for the rest of their lives."

The American Psychological Association has repeatedly warned of the effects of family separation and detention on children.

"We cannot underscore enough the importance of considering the mental health of the detainees and the strong possibility that the longer individuals are held in detention, the more likely their mental health will suffer — this is especially the case for children," the APA wrote in a November 2018 statement