WASHINGTON - The head of the Department of Homeland Security defended the Trump administration's practice of separating children from parents when the family is being prosecuted for entering the U.S. illegally, telling a Senate committee Tuesday that removing children from parents facing criminal charges happens "in the United States every day.''
Kirstjen Nielsen, who has headed the agency since December, came under attack by Democratic senators days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions said a "zero tolerance'' policy toward people entering the country illegally could lead to more families being split up while parents are prosecuted.
In a contentious exchange with Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Nielsen said her department was not taking children from parents as a way to deter illegal immigration. Rather, Nielsen said, if a person crosses the border illegally: "We will refer you for prosecution. You've broken U.S. law.''
When Harris pressed her about what that would mean for a 4-year-old child whose family faces charges of entering the country illegally, Nielsen said, "What we'll be doing is prosecuting parents who've broken the law, just as we do every day in the United States of America.''
The children are transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services within 48 hours, she said. That department then finds people for the children to stay with while the parents are in custody, she said.
"They will be separated from their parent,'' said Harris, who's considered a possible contender for her party's 2020 presidential nomination.
"Just like we do in the United States every day,'' Nielsen replied.
But she did not dispute criticism by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that the government could do a better job of monitoring the children it places in a family's custody to make sure they're safe.
"I could not agree with your concerns more, period,'' Nielsen said.
Nielsen told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that her agency and HHS have procedures aimed at making sure the people caring for the children are not criminals.
"It is our duty to protect them, to keep them in a safe environment,'' Nielsen said.
DHS has said it would refer all arrests for illegal entry to federal prosecutors, backing up Sessions' policy, announced last month, to expand criminal prosecutions of people with few or no previous offenses. A conviction for illegal entry carries a maximum penalty of six months in custody for first-time crossers - though they usually do far less time - and two years for repeat offenses.
Nearly one in four Border Patrol arrests on the Mexican border from October through April was someone who came in a family. That means any large increase in prosecutions will likely cause parents to be separated from their children while they face charges and do time in jail.
Just last week, President Donald Trump criticized Nielsen at a Cabinet meeting for not doing enough to stop illegal border crossings. He discounted her explanation that her department faces legal restrictions on what it can do, according to people familiar with the exchange.
The agency has denied a report by The New York Times that the confrontation left Nielsen close to resigning.