March 6 (UPI) -- The Trump administration's immigration policies drew attention from four congressional committees Wednesday.
The oversight hearings began a day after U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced that it apprehended more than 76,103 undocumented migrants at the southern border in February, the highest in 12 years.
Administration officials went to Capitol Hill to defend the president's national emergency declaration and his border security policies to the House Committee on Homeland Security and the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning.
The senior officials defended President Donald Trump's decision to declare an emergency to redirect budgets for military construction and drug interdiction toward border wall construction.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the House Committee on Homeland Security that "illegal immigration is spiraling out of control" and that her "duty is to secure the nation's borders." The department has more than 240,000 employees.
Nielsen said the U.S. immigration system demands reform because it attracts migrants who "exploit the law."
"The current system isn't working and this is an emergency we have to deal with," Nielsen said.
Lawmakers' questions broke along partisan lines.
Republicans asked Nielsen about coyotes helping to smuggle migrants across the Southern border and what can be done to stop drugs trafficked into the United States. Nielsen said she supports border wall construction and surveillance technologies, and hiring more Border Patrol agents. She said that 2018 was the first year in which the agency hired more employees than left.
But Democratic lawmakers who control House committees were skeptical of Nielsen's testimony, instead questioning her about last year's policy to separate migrant families, turning back asylum seekers from ports of entry and "cage-like" conditions for detained children in Border Patrol stations.
Nielsen denied the administration had a family separation policy, said that turning back asylum seekers was in their humanitarian interest and denied that parts of Border Patrol stations set aside for children were like cages.
Meanwhile, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, controlled by Republicans.
McAleenan emphasized that secure borders were of paramount importance to national security but emphasized the challenges faced by Customs and Border Protection when dealing with a flow of migrants arriving in families or as unaccompanied children.
"For the first time in history, more than half of all those crossing are members of family units," McAleenan told lawmakers. "In February, we saw roughly 40,000 family unit members in four weeks. This represents an almost 340 percent increase, year-to-date, over last year."
McAleenan said "arrivals of unaccompanied children are also up 50 percent over this time last year, and exceeded 7,000 in February." The commissioner said more than 27,000 children, with and without their parents, will "enter our immigration enforcement process in one month -- approximately one-fifth of them 5 and under."
While senior officials testified in the House and Senate, the House Committee on Appropriations heard testimony from John V. Kelly, acting Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security.
Kelly told committee members about his agency's multiple and ongoing investigations into the implementation of the Department of Homeland Security's immigration policies and pointed out in written testimony that "Complaints from DHS employees and the public to our hotline continue to grow, with 40,657 complaints received in FY 2018 and 7,331 received to date in FY 2019."
Kelly addressed the lack of preparation by government agencies separating families last year, dangerous and unhealthy conditions in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, the difficulties of hiring Border Patrol and immigration agents, and disaster relief efforts conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The full day of congressional oversight hearings continued into Wednesday afternoon when the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing called "Protecting Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status Recipients." These programs offer temporary stays against deportation for different populations.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program protects Dreamers, the moniker for children whose parents brought them unlawfully into the United States. The Temporary Protected Status program applies to nationals from 10 countries who cannot be deported because of dangerous conditions in those countries.
The Trump administration has sought to curtail both programs, while Democratic lawmakers said they want to continue them.