U.S. homeland security chief faces questions about illegal immigration from southeastern congressmen

Homeland security hearing

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security faced questions from congressmen from the southeastern region about illegal immigration and issues at the southern border Wednesday.

"Do you believe that we are currently seeing an immigration crisis on our southwest border?” asked Rep. Michael Guest, R-Mississippi.

“Yes, I do, and the numbers are increasing so quickly that our system, which I testified to before was at the breaking point, is clearly breaking,” said DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

Nielsen appeared before the Committee on Homeland Security. Louisiana Congressmen Cedric Richmond and Clay Higgins also sit on the panel.

According to the federal government, last month there were more than 76,000 migrants apprehended, more than double the number for the same period last year.

Nielsen said border agencies are on track to apprehend nearly a million people crossing into the U.S. illegally at the southern border this year.

Democrats pressed Nielsen on several points, including family separations and the border wall President Trump says is necessary for national security.

"Would you be okay with building a wall to separate the United States and Canada?” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Missouri) asked Nielsen.

“So, we do everything by risk, as you know sir. Right now, the risk is not such that it would necessitate physical barriers,” Nielsen replied.

Republicans pointed to opioids and other illegal drugs flowing into the country through the southern border.

"Do you believe that a physical barrier is an important part of our strategy to decrease the flow of illegal drugs from entering America?” asked Rep. Guest of Nielsen.

“I believe that, but more importantly the men and women and professionals of the CBP believe that,” she said.

Tulane University immigration law Prof. Laila Hlass agrees there has been a recent spike in the number of migrants at the southern border, but she believes the federal government has the resources to handle them.

"I don't see a crisis per se. There has been an increase in migration at the border, but what we're seeing is a lot of the humanitarian issues are issues that the federal government itself has caused, right? So, a lot of strains that are on the system are because the government shut down itself, and so 86,000 cases had to be rescheduled,” said Hlass.

She said the federal immigration court in New Orleans is already stretched thin.

"There’s a huge backlog of immigration cases that have grown over time because case processing is taking longer. They need more judges. We have three judges here in New Orleans, and I’m sure they would appreciate more help to clear up this backlog,” said Hlass.

Hlass also said that having to wait years to have asylum cases heard can put immigrants at a disadvantage.

"Evidence that you have of what happened to you is getting older,” she said.

Copyright 2019 WVUE. All rights reserved.