WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers accused Kevin K. McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security, of leading an agency with an “empathy deficit” during a hearing on Thursday that focused on the separation of migrant children from their parents and reports of poor conditions at holding facilities near the border.
“What does that mean when a child is sitting in their own feces? Can’t take a shower?” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “What’s that about? None of us would have our children in that position. They are human beings.”
The hearing came a week after the committee released findings of an analysis of the more than 2,600 migrant children separated from their parents last year under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which has since been suspended. Democrats grilled Mr. McAleenan over the rollout of the policy, as well as over the discovery of a secret Facebook group for Border Patrol agents that included offensive messages, including obscene images of members of Congress.
“Did you see the images of officers circulating photoshopped images of my violent rape?” said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York. She also asked if the officers who had made the offensive posts in what she described as the “violent, racist group” on social media were still caring for migrants at the border.
Mr. McAleenan said his agents were working as hard as possible to handle a surge of migrant families, largely from Central America, and he defended the culture of the Customs and Border Protection agency.
“We do not have a dehumanizing culture at C.B.P.,” he said, citing the hundreds of rescues of migrants that agents have conducted this year in the Rio Grande.
“Those posts are unacceptable, they’re being investigated, but I don’t think it’s fair to apply them to the entire organization,” Mr. McAleenan added.
Customs and Border Protection said this week that 62 active border agents were being investigated for participating in offensive social media groups. Mr. McAleenan said Thursday that some officers had been placed on administrative duty, without specifying where they were based. He said the Department of Homeland Security has also issued cease-and-desist letters to “dozens or more,” but he did not describe those letters in more detail.
Mr. McAleenan spent much of the more than three-hour hearing defending the care of children in Border Patrol facilities, following multiple reports that some migrants had gone for days or weeks without soap or showers in overcrowded, disease-filled detention centers. He said his agents have apprehended more than 800,000 migrants trying to enter the country since last October, pushing the agency’s resources beyond capacity.
“As I have testified and warned publicly dozens of times this year and last, we are facing an unprecedented crisis at the border,” Mr. McAleenan said.
Mr. McAleenan contended that if Congress would amend immigration laws that prevent the quick deportation of Central American children and alter a federal court settlement that prohibits officials from detaining children in facilities for more than 20 days, it would ease the overcrowding and allow immigrant families to receive due process without being released into the United States.
Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, said changing the court settlement would only lead to children being held in inhumane conditions for longer periods of time.
“Just admit that,” Ms. Tlaib said. “You want to keep the kids longer.”
Republican members of the committee accused Democrats of making the problems at the border worse by blaming the Department of Homeland Security instead of seeking solutions.
“My Democratic colleagues don’t give a damn about national security or the migrants coming here,” said Representative Chip Roy of Texas. “They prefer to use children as political props.”
Democrats also faulted Mr. McAleenan for not quickly reuniting children with their parents after President Trump rescinded the family separation policy last June in response to public backlash. The oversight panel’s report found that more than 50 children were held in shelters for six months to a year, and more than 20 were held for more than a year. The report also found that at least 18 infants and toddlers younger than 2 had been separated from their parents, the youngest being 4 months old.
Even after Mr. Trump rescinded the policy, hundreds more children were separated from parents who had been flagged for fraud, disease or past criminal history, including minor violations from years in the past.
Mr. McAleenan said the current separations of children from their parents were rare and “undertaken in the best interest and safety and welfare of the child.” He said fewer than 1,000 families have been separated since last summer.
Mr. Cummings and other Democrats faulted Mr. McAleenan for the carrying out of the family separation policy and its aftermath.
“Tragically, under Mr. McAleenan’s leadership, the Trump administration failed to track separated children and their families so they could be reunited,” Mr. Cummings said.
“The damage the Trump administration has inflicted, and is continuing to inflict, will impact these children for the rest of their lives,” he added. “When we’re dealing with children, it’s not the deed, it’s the memory. It is the memory that will haunt them until they day that they die.”