Underwood says border policies resulted in child deaths, draws rebuke

Rep. Lauren Underwood received a rebuke from her own committee members Wednesday stemming from comments some GOP representatives interpreted as accusing U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials of murdering children.

In an interview, Underwood, who represents Illinois' 14th Congressional District, denied that characterization. She said the agency is refusing to accept responsibility for policies that left the door open for child deaths to occur. Underwood referenced five deaths, but authorities said later Wednesday that a 10-year-old El Salvadoran girl with a history of congenital heart defects died in U.S. custody last year in a previously unreported case, bringing the total to six.

The comments came during a House Committee on Homeland Security budget hearing. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan appeared to ask for more funds to address a surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. That influx resulted in the separation of more than 2,500 children last year under a "zero-tolerance" policy enacted by President Donald Trump's administration. Of six child deaths, two have occurred since the end of the zero-tolerance policy.

In an exchange with McAleenan, Underwood said the zero-tolerance policy, poor access to medical care and processes that force border patrol officers into child care roles are responsible for the deaths of those children.

"The evidence is clear that this is intentional," Underwood said to McAleenan. "It's a policy choice made on purpose by this administration, and it's cruel and inhumane."

Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican representative from Alabama, interpreted Underwood's remarks as saying McAleenan and the agency "intentionally murders children." He succeeded in a 9-7 vote in having Underwood's statement stricken from the official hearing record.

In an interview with the Daily Herald, Underwood said Rogers' interpretation was "a gross mischaracterization of my comments."

Underwood said a hearing with former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resulted in promises of detailed analyses of what caused the deaths of children in U.S. custody. She said there were pledges to make policy changes to ensure no more deaths occurred.

"Now there's been two deaths in the last week since (McAleenan) has been on board," Underwood said. "He described it as purely a resource issue. They were out of money. I find that to not be a forthcoming response. There are policies that have been put in place that contributed to the ongoing medical conditions, lack of availability of treatment and the way (migrants) are handled before they are able to access medical providers. That goes beyond a resource issue. Inherent in a policy choice is that it is intentional."

Underwood said she's pleased zero tolerance ended. However, the number of children still waiting to be reunited with family could number in the thousands. In court documents filed in April, the government said reunification could take up to two years.

Medical studies acknowledged by McAleenan during the hearing say there are short- and long-term medical consequences to that separation.

"If the Trump administration had a policy that said no individual in federal custody would experience harm or trauma, that would be a policy choice," Underwood said. "They do not have that kind of policy. They do not have that kind of attitude toward this situation. This administration has made an intentional policy choice that left open the possibility that migrant children could die within U.S. custody."

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan prepares to leave after a House Homeland Security Committee meeting on Wednesday in Washington. Associated Press
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