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Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf Appears Before Senate Committee For Confirmation Hearing

U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee conducts hearing on nomination of Chad Wolf to be secretary of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Capitol Hill
Texas Public Radio
Department of Homeland official Chad Wolf speaks during a meeting earlier this month in Washington, D.C. President Trump is set to pick wolf to lead DHS in an acting capacity.

Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf answered questions Wednesday morning before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, as part of his confirmation hearing to become DHS secretary.

Wolf has served as Acting Secretary for DHS since November 2019.

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council, said it’s been more than 500 days since DHS has had a secretary who was confirmed by the Senate.

“Currently, every single major agency inside the Department of Homeland Security that deals with immigration is run by not only an acting official, but somebody who is simply the top official performing the duties of the office," Reichlin-Melnick said.

Kirstjen Nielsen was the last Senate confirmed secretary for the agency. Family separations at the border through the Zero Tolerance Policy happened under her tenure.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report in August that said Wolf was not legitimately appointed.

“Upon Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s resignation on April 10, 2019, the official who assumed the title of Acting Secretary had not been designated in the order of succession to serve upon the Secretary’s resignation,” the report said. “Because the incorrect official assumed the title of Acting Secretary at that time, subsequent amendments to the order of succession made by that official were invalid and officials who assumed their positions under such amendments, including Chad Wolf and Kenneth Cuccinelli, were named by reference to an invalid order of succession.”

More than a week after the report was published, President Trump announced via a tweet that he would nominate Wolf as DHS secretary.

“I’m grateful to the President for the faith and trust he’s placed in me to serve the tremendous men and women of the department, whose mission is now more important and more critical to the safety and security of the homeland than ever before” said Wolf at the hearing.

Wolf also addressed the GAO’s findings and said he strongly disagrees with the opinion.

“I will continue to say that I respect the role that GAO plays, but that again does not dismiss the fact that we believe they have a faulty decision in the legal logic that they used, it’s very inaccurate,” said Wolf. “That is a nonbinding decision that the GAO has made. Again, we’ll continue to state our position. We’ve stated it pretty emphatically about that and so we’ll continue to operate as we have using our existing authorities under the Homeland Security Act to designate successors.”

During Wolf’s role as acting secretary there have been more than 147,000 expulsions at the southern border. Some are families and children seeking asylum in the U.S., since March.

DHS has said expulsions were necessary to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 into the U.S., but a report from ProPublica found that the government was testing migrant children for the virus, and the kids who tested negative for COVID-19 were still being expelled to their home countries.

Dr. Katherine Peeler with Physicians for Human Rights said earlier this year that the organization asked six experts in infectious disease epidemiology to review and analyze the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order used to enforce expulsions.

“There was really no public health sense behind it, so it really categorically targets one particular group who is not anymore at likelihood to essentially spread COVID-19 than other groups that we are continually allowing into the United States,” Peeler said.

In May, Physicians for Human Rights told the CDC that asylum seekers were no more likely to spread COVID-19 than students, temporary workers and truck drivers who cross the border and were exempt from these types of restrictions.

“This rule violates U.S. and international legal obligations toward asylum seekers looking for safe haven in the United States,” said Michel Heisler, the medical director of PHR, in a press release. “The administration is brazenly using COVID-19 to enact its immigration agenda, effectively dismantling decades of U.S. asylum policy under the guise of public health.”

Senator Jacky Rosen of Nevada questioned Wolf about his role in creating the family separation policy. Rosen first asked Wolf about something he said in his confirmation hearing for undersecretary back in June 2019.

“I asked if you were involved in developing the family separation policy and you answered me unequivocally, ‘no ma’am,’” she said. “I asked how you became aware of the policy and you told me, ‘through discussions with staff, discussions leading up to the attorney general’s announcement in April 2018.’”

Rosen said after that hearing an email exchange from 2017 became public.

“You emailed the Justice Department spokesperson attaching a memo with the filename, ‘UAC options,’” she said. “You wrote an email to the other official that you worked with others to pull the memo together and that the purpose of the memo was to give then DHS Secretary Nielsen, ‘an idea on what she can do right away versus actions that will take months plus to implement.’”

Rosen said the attached political memo was called, ‘Policy Options to Respond to Border Surge of Illegal Immigration,’ and that out of 16 policy options, family separation was number two.

“So let’s talk about your memo,” she said to Wolf. “Announce that DHS is considering separating family units, placing adults in adult detention and placing the minors in custody of HHS as an unaccompanied alien children, or UACs, but those children you recommended classifying as UAC’s, were not actually unaccompanied, were they Mr. Wolf?”

“It was not my memo. You keep referring to it as my memo,” Wolf responded. “As I said last year, Secretary Nielsen relied on not only her operators, but also her policy and immigration attorneys to develop policy options.”

Rosen pressed Wolf and said he was part of the team and that as chief of staff he had a direct relationship and was part of a series of memos that went on to deciding to separate children.

Wolf added that this was not his issue set at that time.

He also answered questions about foreign interference in the U.S. election, border wall construction, a recent whistleblower complaint, human trafficking and other items.

Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said that he hoped to move Wolf’s nomination along as expeditiously as possible.

The full configuration hearing can be seen here.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at reynaldo@tpr.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos