How many people have died in DHS custody? Kirstjen Nielsen doesn't know the answer

DHS head tells Congress she'll "get back" to them on migrant deaths, has no idea how many ports of entry there are

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published December 21, 2018 2:30PM (EST)

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is sworn in before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018.  (AP/Susan Walsh)
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is sworn in before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen called for funding for President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall during a House hearing Thursday but failed to answer basic questions about border security and her own department.

Nielsen was grilled by the House Judiciary Committee less than a week after DHS revealed that a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl named Jakelin Caal Maquin had died in Border Patrol custody.

Nielsen was unable to answer questions from Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., about how many people had died in DHS custody.

“Madam 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 pressed.

“Sir, what I can tell you is —” Nielsen began before Cicilline interjected. “I’m talking about people who have died in your custody. You don’t have the number?” he asked.

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

Voice of America reported that Border Patrol officials have declined to provide any numbers of how many people died in their custody since 2015. According to the agency’s last report in 2015, 10 people died as a result of use of force by officials and five others died of other causes during that year.

"Sometimes aliens do die in the desert," a Border Patrol official who declined to be named told the outlet.

Nielsen was also grilled about the administration’s demand that migrants seeking asylum must present themselves at official legal points of entry.

“How many legal points of entry are there across the U.S.-Mexico border?” asked Rep. Karen Handel, a Georgia Republican who will soon be leaving Congress. 

“Ah, I — it’s late in the day, and, it’s about, ah, between 20 and 30 is my recollection,” Nielsen replied at around 2 p.m.

“OK, so certainly more than 20?” Handel asked.

“I believe so,” Nielsen replied.

According to Border Patrol, there are 48 points of entry along the southwest border.

Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, used his time to question whether Nielsen was “aware” of research showing that immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans.

“I have not seen those particular studies,” Nielsen told Lieu.

“It’d be helpful if you start putting in some basic facts about the actual facts related to immigrants and crime,” Lieu replied.

In 2015, the Cato Institute found that “roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males 18–39 are incarcerated, compared to 3.3 percent of the native-born,” adding that “the weight of the evidence suggests that immigration is not associated with increased levels of crime. To the extent that a relationship does exist, research often finds a negative effect of immigration on levels of crime, in general, and on homicide in particular.”

Nielsen did find one defender in Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who used his time to defend the Trump administration’s family separation policy.

“Parents are separated from children every single day of every year,” Gohmert declared. “Mueller did it, and I know he’s a hero to some folks around here, he did it to [Paul] Manafort — separated him from his two beautiful children. It happens.”

Manafort’s adult children are in their 30s. He was “separated” from them after being convicted of numerous federal crimes.

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

MORE FROM Igor Derysh