Trump’s pick to lead Homeland Security pressed on origins of family-separation policy

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Department of Homeland Security acting Secretary testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee o on September 23, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The Trump administration’s family-separation policy was second on a list of options to quickly respond to the “border surge of illegal immigration” in 2017.

The zero-tolerance policy, and 15 other suggestions, were compiled in a 2017 memo and given to then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen so she could have an idea of what to do “right away” instead of something that would have taken months to implement.

The memo resurfaced Wednesday during Chad Wolf’s confirmation hearing to move up from Acting Secretary to Secretary of Homeland Security. Wolf, who was Nielsen’s chief of staff at the time, testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that he helped compile the list of policy options, but he again denied developing the heavily criticized policy of separating families at the border.

Sen. Jackie Rosen, D-Nevada, questioned Wolf about the testimony he gave during his confirmation hearing to be Under Secretary of DHS in June 2019. Rosen said Wolf told her, then, that he first became aware of the policy from discussions with staff leading up to its formal announcement in May 2018.

After the June 2019 hearing, an email Wolf sent to a Justice Department spokesman in December 2017 became public, Rosen said. Wolf wrote that he “worked with others to pull the memo together,” and he attached a file named “UAC Options,” for Unaccompanied Alien Children. The memo was titled “Policy Options to Respond to Border Surge of Illegal Immigration.”

“So let me ask you this,” Rosen said Wednesday. “I asked if you helped develop this policy, and you told me ‘no,’ is that correct?”

“That’s correct,” replied Wolf.

But Rosen said Wolf never mentioned the memo, which said DHS “considered separating family units and treating the children as unaccompanied.”

“They weren’t unaccompanied, they were part of family units. That’s what you said in your memo. You called them ‘unaccompanied’ but they weren’t,” Rosen said.

Wolf argued that it wasn’t his memo.

“Let me just say, it was not my memo. You keep referring to it as my memo,” Wolf said. He added that Nielsen relied on not only her operators but also her immigration attorneys to develop policy options.

“You were part of her team, and as her chief of staff, you have direct relationship and responsibility,” Rosen said. “You were part of a series of memos that went on, deciding to separate children and treat them as unaccompanied.”

But Wolf said his responsibility as chief of staff was, “to make sure that the Secretary was fully staffed.”

“That was not my portfolio,” Wolf said. “It was not my issue set at that time.”

Rosen pressed on, asking since he’s been Acting Secretary for 10 months if he considers it his job to speak truth to power “when utterly abhorrent policies like this get proposed.”

“Do you support ending family separation?” Rosen asked.

Replied Wolf: “As I testified last year, I testify again this year. I support the President’s decision when he issued an executive order to stop that practice, as the department did. And we executed that executive order I believe in June 2018.”

It was a wide-ranging Senate confirmation hearing which pressed Wolf on numerous issues, but testimony on immigration policy, overall, was minimal. In written testimony that Wolf submitted ahead of his hearing, the word “immigration” does not appear once.

However, congressional Democrats who have come out against President Trump’s nomination are mostly critical of Wolf’s immigration policies, insisting that it was he who was an early architect of the family separation policy.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Committee Chairman Sen. Ron Johnson, the all-Democrat Congressional Hispanic Caucus said Wolf is unfit for the job.

“Apart from the egregious nature of family separation, it emerged that the policy did not include measures to reunite families, triggering a child migration crisis,” the letter read. “The process to reunite all families could take years and the children separated at the border have been left with a lifetime of trauma. Mr. Wolf, who proposed family separation, does not deserve a promotion.”

The Hispanic Caucus questioned, among other things, Citizenship and Immigration Services’ virtual shutdown, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s use of “black site” hotels to hold migrant children before deporting them, and Wolf refusing to reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which the Supreme Court protected from an effort to end it by the White House.

“Wolf’s record shows a consistent failure to effectively manage the agency, a pattern of issuing inaccurate or misleading statements, and enacting some of the most disturbing immigration policies in our country’s history,” members of the caucus wrote. “Based on Mr. Wolf’s track record it is clear he is unfit to serve as the Department of Homeland Security Secretary. On behalf of the CHC, we strongly urge the Senate to oppose the nomination of Chad. F. Wolf.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced Wolf at the hearing, saying, “it’s a real pleasure to introduce Chad Wolf. He’s a fellow Texas and dedicated public servant.”

“He is an individual that I believe is eminently qualified to be the next Secretary of Homeland Security,” Cruz said.

Johnson also praised Wolf, saying “extensive management experience combined with his leadership of the Department over the last 10 months make him uniquely qualified to serve as the Secretary of Homeland Security.”

The Committee is expected to vote on Wolf’s nomination on Wednesday. Should his nomination be reported to the full Senate, it’s unclear if there would be a vote before the Nov. 3 election.

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