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Rep. Thompson Blasts White House's 'Outright Lies,' Calls for Hearings

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., called on Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen to appear before the congressional Homeland Security oversight committee to testify about the December deaths of immigrant children who were in the custody of U.S. border agents. Photo courtesy Bennie Thompson

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., called on Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen to appear before the congressional Homeland Security oversight committee to testify about the December deaths of immigrant children who were in the custody of U.S. border agents. Photo courtesy Bennie Thompson Photo by Bennie Thompson

— Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., accused the Trump administration of "outright lies" and called for hearings on the deaths of children who were in U.S. custody.

Thompson, who became chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security when Democrats took control of the U.S. House last week, issued the scathing statements in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen on Friday.

Nielsen had appeared before Congress earlier that day and, in an effort to make the case for President Trump's proposed border wall, falsely claimed that the U.S. caught thousands of terrorists at the border last year. Justice Department records, however, show that there were no such apprehensions.

"Your border security presentation submitted to Congress today is yet another example of the misinformation and outright lies the Trump administration has used to make the case for the President's boondoggle border wall, defend the government shutdown, and distract the American people from a border policy so flawed that children have died in Department of Homeland Security custody," Thompson wrote.

Deaths of Children on Trump's Watch

Eight-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo's died on Christmas Day—a week after Border Patrol agents apprehended him and his father for entering the country illegally just miles away from an El Paso border crossing on Dec. 18.

Felipe and his father crossed into the U.S. in a bid to escape poverty in their homeland and for educational opportunities during a time when the Trump administration is making it more difficult for immigrants to request asylum at U.S. borders, as federal law allows.

Felipe "always wanted a bicycle," Catarina Gomez Lucas, Felipe's 21-year-old sister, said.

On Dec. 8, another child, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, died at an El Paso hospital of shock and dehydration while in CBP custody. Her death, though, came just 27 hours after agents detained her and her father at a border crossing. Her funeral was held on Christmas Day, but her mother was too distraught to attend, and U.S. Border Patrol agents were still holding her father.

"Jakelin and her father came to the United States seeking something that thousands have been seeking for years: An escape from the dangerous situation in their home country," a statement from her family reads. "This was their right under U.S. and international law."

Though six adults died in U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Agents custody in 2018, Felipe and Jakelin were the first children to die in custody in more than a decade.

In his letter to Nielsen, Thompson requested "any documents, records, memoranda, correspondence, or other communications" related to "the care and treatment of children in CBP custody, from November 1, 2018, to the present, including documents related to the deaths of Jakelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Alonzo-Gomez."

He also requested documents related to the treatment of families and children crossing the border and the waitlisting or blocking of immigrants attempting to entering the country at legal ports of entry.

"The Committee's first hearing will focus on critical border security matters, to include the border wall, metering of individuals seeking asylum at ports of entry, and the treatment of children in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody," Thompson wrote.

Trump Policies Make Crossing Legally More Difficult

In recent months, most immigrants CBP detained have been children or families who said they were seeking asylum after fleeing persecution in their home countries. Though refugee families can legally apply for asylum at ports of legal ports of entry instead of crossing the border illegally, the Trump administration has made that increasingly difficult.

The administration began turning asylum seekers away from ports of entry in the past few months, telling them to wait. Just miles from the El Paso port of entry, where agents apprehended Felipe and his father, hundreds of refugees have been waiting for months in Ciudad Juarez.

"With the safest crossings clogged up, crossing through wilderness is the quickest way into U.S. care," Vox reports. "It also raises the risk of not making it that far."

Policies like that, Thompson said in a statement last month, contribute to child deaths at the border.

In December, a mother traveling from Honduras with her child told Buzzfeed News and NBC News that, after CBP agents detained her and her sick 5-month-old baby earlier this month, they took away the antibiotics she had been using to treat the child. For five days, they put her and the baby in a "freezing cell" known as a hielera or icebox, she said, and refused her requests for treatment for the child, calling her an "invader."

"The agents told me I wasn't in a position to be asking for anything and that they didn't tell me to come to the United States," she told NBC News.

The Arizona Republic published video in December from a facility run by nonprofit Southwest Key that houses detained undocumented children showing staffers kicking, slapping and dragging children. Juan Sanchez, the CEO of Southwest Key, which is now under federal investigation, made $1.5 million last year. Southwest Key has benefitted from more than $1 billion in federal contracts to house undocumented children.

"The Committee's first hearing will focus on critical border security matters, to include the border wall, metering of individuals seeking asylum at ports of entry, and the treatment of children in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody," Thompson wrote.

Mississippi Democratic House Minority Leader David Baria praised Thompson for his leadership.

"Thank you Congressman @BennieGThompson for the return of oversight and accountability," he tweeted Sunday.

No Paycheck for Federal Workers in Mississippi Amid Shutdown

The calls for a hearing before the oversight committee comes amid a government shutdown for which there is no end in sight. In December, while Republicans still controlled both chambers of Congress, President Trump began threatening to shut down the government if lawmakers would not give him funding for a border wall.

In a meeting with Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and then-incoming Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on Dec. 11, Trump said he would "be proud" to hold government operations hostage to a wall-funding ransom. In fact, he said, he would "love to see a government shutdown."

"If we don't get what we want, one way or the other...I will shut down the government, absolutely," Trump said.

Trump assured Schumer and Pelosi moments later he would not blame them.

"I will be the one to shut it down. I'm not going to blame you for it," he told them.

On Dec. 19, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate unanimously passed a bill to keep the government opening after Vice President Mike Pence assured Senate leaders he would sign it. Trump pulled the rug out from under Congress the next day, though, refusing to sign any bill that did not include $5 billion to build a border wall. On Dec. 22, the government shut down.

Trump also reneged on his promise to take the blame, and has since tried to rebrand the shutdown as a Pelosi-instigated "Schumer shutdown."

As a result of the shutdown, nearly 800,000 federal workers are unsure when they'll see another paycheck. Among federal employees from Mississippi included in that figure are about 1,600 Agriculture Department employees, 500 Justice Department employees, and 500 NASA employees.

In a letter to federal employees late last month, the Office of Personnel Management that oversees them suggested that, absent paychecks, they try bartering with their landlords to make rent. Specifically, the letter suggested they offer "to perform maintenance (e.g. painting, carpentry work) in exchange for partial rent payments."

Last week, Trump said he would allow the shutdown to go on for "months or years" if necessary to get border funding. He also floated the idea of declaring a national emergency so he could bypass Congress and build a border wall that way.

Thompson said a wall would be a waste of money in his letter to Nielsen.

"Squandering taxpayer money will not solve the real border security challenges facing our nation," Thompson wrote.

Gov. Bryant Wants Trump to Shut Down U.S.-Mexico Border

On New Year's Eve, Trump tweeted that he would shut down the southern border with Mexico entirely if Democrats refused to give him a wall.

In a tweet that afternoon, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant eagerly cheered him on, even though such a move would threaten $2.5 billion in trade with his state's third largest export market.

"Shut it down, Mr. President," the Republican governor tweeted in response that afternoon. "The MAGA Nation will stand with you."

A 2014 study from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars estimated that 40,800 Mississippi jobs and 5 million nationwide depend directly on trade with Mexico. Mexico is the state's third largest export partner.

Even as Bryant echoes Trump's rhetoric on immigration and border policy, the self-described "pro-life" governor has not commented on the deaths of the two children who were in the custody of border agents, or on allegations of abuse at child-detention facilities. In October, though, he did say that black women who choose to have abortions are participating in the "the genocide of 20 million African American children."

Rep. Steven Palazzo, the 4th District congressman who represents much of South Mississippi including Hattiesburg, Biloxi, and Gulfport, proposed his own border wall funding solution last month: Under his "Border Bonds for America Act," American citizens would pay to build a wall on the southern border by purchasing revenue bonds from the U.S. Treasury.

Palazzo's bill drew little support and died before the New Democratic Congress was sworn in.

Ashton Pittman is the state reporter for the Jackson Free Press. Follow him on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Email him story tips to ashton@jacksonfreepress.com.


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