DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen Under Fire For Not Knowing How Many Immigrants Died In Agency’s Custody

Kirstjen Nelson speaks at a press conference
Hector Vivas / Getty Images

Department of Homeland Security Director Kirstjen Nielsen is under fire after appearing before Congress on Thursday and not being able to answer basic questions about immigration, including how many people had died in the custody of her agency.

As Vox reported, the embattled Trump cabinet member appeared before the House Judiciary Committee at a hearing, her first since reports emerged about the death of a 7-year-old immigrant girl in the custody of Border Patrol. The hearing had a rocky start for Nielsen, who was unable to answer a question from Democrat David Cicilline about how many immigrants had died in DHS custody.

In a testy exchange, Cicilline continued to press Nielsen, who could not answer his questions.

“Madame Secretary, did I understand you correctly to say that as you sit here today, you do not know how many human beings have died while in custody of the department that you lead, and in preparation for today’s hearing, you didn’t ascertain that number?” Cicilline asked.

“I don’t have an exact figure for you,” Nielsen replied.

“Do you have a rough idea?” Cicilline answered, growing more frustrated.

“Sir, what I can tell you is —”

“I’m talking about people who have died in your custody. You don’t have the number?”

“I will get back to you with the number,” Nielsen said.

The Department of Homeland Security was already under fire for not releasing information about the death of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, who crossed the U.S. border with her father in early December and was dead within hours of being taken into custody. The agency has offered a series of differing accounts of Caal’s death, initially saying that the girl had nothing to eat or drink for several days before she was picked up, but appeared to back off that explanation after it was disputed by her father and by medical examiners.

There have also been accusations that the Department of Homeland Security tried to cover up the girl’s death. As ABC News noted, the head of Border Patrol appeared before Congress three days after the girl died but did not inform members of Congress of her death. Kevin McAleenan, the agency’s commissioner, later explained that he did not want to “risk politicizing the death of a child.”

Kirstjen Nielsen herself had come under fire for her response to the girl’s death, issuing a statement that instead blamed the girl’s family for taking her on the journey from Guatemala to the United States. Critics say the Trump administration has purposely made it more difficult — and more dangerous — for immigrants to enter the United States, even those entering legally to seek asylum. The administration has closed some legal entry points, which critics says forces immigrants to cross in more dangerous areas.