That’s about to change.
In an interview with me, the incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee vowed that when Democrats take over in January, they will undertake thorough and wide-ranging scrutiny of the justifications behind — and executions of — the top items in Trump’s immigration agenda, from the family separations, to the thinly veiled Muslim ban, to the handling of the current turmoil involving migrants at the border.
“We will visit the border,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who is expected to chair the committee, which has jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security, told me. “We will hold hearings in committee on any and all aspects of DHS. … We will not back off of this issue.”
This oversight — which could result in calling for testimony from Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s immigration agenda — will include scrutiny of the administration’s justifications for its policies. Importantly, Thompson tells me Democrats will seek to grill officials on what went into Trump’s public statements on various aspects of the issue, many of which are falsehoods.
On asylum seekers, for instance, Trump’s public rationale for his various efforts to restrict their ability to apply (which is their legal right), is based on lies about the criminal threat they supposedly pose and absurd exaggerations about the rates at which they don’t show up for hearings.
To be clear, Trump has used these rationales to justify actual policies with real-world impact, such as the effort to cruelly restrict asylum-applications to only official points of entry. Trump has also threatened a total border shutdown. Hearings could reveal that the justifications are nonsense, and spotlight their true arbitrary and cruel nature (putting aside for now that their real motive is ethno-nationalism).
“All this innuendo we hear about criminals coming in the caravan, we just want to know, how did you validate this?” Thompson told me, adding that DHS officials would be called on in hearings to account for Trump’s claims. “Policy has to be backed up with evidence. So we will do rigorous oversight.”
This will also include a look at the recent tear-gassing of migrants, and the administration’s public statements about it and justifications, Thompson said. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has defended the fact that tear gas appears to have impacted children by claiming they were used as “human shields.”
The use of the military as a prop
Thompson said such scrutiny could dovetail with an examination of Trump’s use of the military at the border as campaign propaganda, though that might involve the House Armed Services Committee. “We have to get full disclosure in a public setting or a classified setting,” Thompson said. “Under no circumstances will we not get information.”
By the way: Even if you take some of Trump’s complaints about asylum seeking seriously — there are serious issues with backlogs that have real consequences — you should want this oversight. If done well, it could shed light on actual problems, such as the role of the administration’s deliberate delays in processing asylum seekers in creating the current border mess, to the real need to reorganize the bureaucracy to relieve backlogs and to pursue regional solutions to the root causes of migration surges.
The overall goal, Thompson said, will be this: “As a nation of immigrants ourselves, we want to make sure that our process of immigration that includes asylum-seekers is constitutional and represents American values.”
Family separations and the travel ban
Thompson told me the committee would also look at the process leading up to the travel ban, which proceeded despite the fact that two internal Homeland Security analyses undercut its national security rationale.
Democrats can demand that DHS officials justify that policy. “What did you use to come up with this travel ban? How did you select these countries?” Thompson said, previewing the inquiry and vowing subpoenas if necessary. “We will ask for any written documentation that went towards putting the ban in place, what individuals were consulted, and what the process consisted of.”
Thompson also said the run-up to the implementation of the family separation policy and its rationale would receive similar scrutiny, as well as at the conditions under which children have been held, such as the reported Texas “tent city.” “Somebody is going to have to come in and tell us, ‘Is this the most efficient way to manage the situation?'” Thompson said. But also: “How did we get here in the first place?”
What can Democrats do?
One big question: What will House Democrats do legislatively against such policies? Thompson told me the goal is to secure cooperation with DHS, but in cases where the agency continues policies that Democrats deem terribly misguided or serious abuses, they can try to legislate against them. That would run headlong into Trump and the GOP-controlled Senate, at which point one could see discussion of targeted defunding of certain policies, though whether that will happen or what that might look like remains to be seen.
“As far as I’m concerned, no option is off the table,” Thompson said. Some more moderate House Democrats who won tougher districts might balk at such a stance, but Thompson said: “Every committee has responsibilities, and we have to carry them out.”
The big story here is that Trump has relied on the outright dismissal of his own administration’s factual determinations to justify many policies, not just on immigration, but also with his drive to weaken efforts to combat global warming despite the big report warning of the dire threats it poses.
The administration will strenuously resist Democratic oversight, and I don’t want to overstate what it can accomplish. But House Democrats must at least try to get into the fight against Trump’s war on facts and empiricism wherever possible. And when it comes to the humanitarian crises Trump has wrought on immigration, this is particularly urgent.