Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan acknowledged Wednesday that he was aware of concerns raised by airport leadership about shifting Transportation Security Administration resources to the southern border.
After a brief exchange during a House Homeland Security budget hearing, McAleenan answered “yes” when pressed if he had heard the concerns coming from airport directors that the loss of personnel had the potential to put the traveling public at risk.
CNN reported last week that the TSA plans to send hundreds of officials to help deal with migrant inflows on the southern border just as the busy summer travel season begins.
McAleenan told the committee that the movement of TSA personnel to the border won’t “put the traveling public at risk” or “reduce our security posture in anyway.” He also confirmed that the number of DHS employees who have volunteered to help on the border are “in the 200 range.”
The task of the TSA workers, which a source said will include air marshals, will be to assist temporarily with immigration duties. TSA acknowledged in an internal email the “immediate need” comes with the acceptance of “some risk” of depleted resources in aviation security.
This is McAleenan’s first time testifying since The Washington Post reported he threatened to quit in a fight with White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller over agency hiring. In addition, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is expected to take a top post at the Department of Homeland Security focusing on immigration, but it’s not clear what that job will entail and how much authority Cuccinelli will have.
Exchanges between members and McAleenan escalated at times.
An hour into the hearing, the room erupted when Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois suggested that the deaths of five migrant children and family separation actions were “intentional.”
“Congress has been more than willing to provide the resources and work with you to address the security and humanitarian concerns but at this point, with five kids that have died, 5,000 separated from their families – I feel like, and the evidence is really clear, that this is intentional. It’s intentional,” Underwood said. “It’s a policy choice being made on purpose by this administration, and it’s cruel and inhumane.”
McAleenan called it an “appalling accusation.”
“That’s an appalling accusation, and our men and women fight hard to protect people in our custody every single day,” he said. “We’ve asked for these resources three weeks ago, it hasn’t been responded to by Congress, and we’ve asked for changes in authorities for the last three years that would have prevented this from happening.”
The exchange received pushback from Republican members, including top committee Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, who jumped in following the exchange.
A brief recess and then a committee vote related to Underwood’s remarks followed at the urging of Republican members to scrap it from the record. In a 9-7 vote, her remarks were removed from the record.
Last week, the White House also introduced a framework aimed at overhauling the nation’s immigration system, though it was short of details.
In April, the Border Patrol arrested 98,977 migrants for illegal entry, many of whom were families, up from the previous month. The rise in families and children, primarily from Central American countries, has strained the department’s resources, given the additional care and processing needs.
Within the last weeks, two Guatemalan children apprehended in the US have died, one in US custody and the other at a Texas hospital.
CNN’s Geneva Sands and David Wright contributed to this report.