When asked Wednesday how many children are detained at the southern U.S. border, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said she didn’t have the number handy. When asked how many “special-interest aliens” are detained at the northern border vs. the southern border, she said she had to check and would follow up.

Nielsen apparently wasn’t prepared for these exchanges, but she was ready for semantic debates.

Near the start of Wednesday’s hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee, Nielsen repeated her past assurances that the separation of families at the border wasn’t, in fact, a policy. “It’s not a policy; it’s the law,” she said.

It’s true that the policy never said, “We will separate families,” but it was inherent in the “zero tolerance” policy that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April 2018, because parents who are charged can’t be detained with their children. The Justice Department asked the Department of Homeland Security to refer all illegal entry cases, and DHS complied. That policy was later abandoned amid an uproar.

That debate is old. What is somewhat new, though, was when Nielsen argued that the children who had been separated from their parents hadn’t been held in “cages.”

In an exchange with Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), he brought up the “cages,” and Nielsen took exception.

“Sir, we don’t use cages for children,” Nielsen said. She drew a small box with her arms to suggest only a much-smaller enclosure would qualify. “Sir, they’re not cages.”

Thompson asked what they were, and Nielsen said they were “areas of the border facility that are carved out for the safety and protection of those who remain there while they’re being processed.”

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) followed up later and asked Nielsen to explain further. “What is a chain-link fence, enclosed into a chamber on a concrete floor represent to you?” she asked. “Is that a cage?”

“It’s a detention space, as you know, that has existed for decades,” Nielsen said, adding: “It’s larger. It has facilities. There are places to sit, to stand, to lay down.”

“So does my dog’s cage,” Watson Coleman responded.

This parse isn’t completely new. Customs and Border Patrol has previously requested that the media not refer to the detention facilities as “cages.”

“They said it’s not inaccurate,” CBS’s Gayle King explained in June. “They said they may be cages, but they’re not being treated like animals.”

The Department of Homeland Security has also put out a fact sheet disputing the “myth” that migrants have been held in “inhumane fenced cages.”

DHS and HHS houses migrants in “inhumane fenced cages” or in an “ice box.”
DHS and HHS utilize short-term facilities in order to process and temporarily hold migrants that have been apprehended. These short-term facilities do not employ the use of ‘cages’ to house minors. Certain facilities make use of barriers in order to separate minors of different genders and age groups – for the safety of those who are being held. Additionally, CBP facilities have adequate temperature control and ventilation. ICE facilities are designed for longer-term detention of adults and, in some cases, families.
DHS takes seriously our responsibility for the safety and security of all migrants in the custody of the United States government.

A Trump-friendly host on Fox News also said around the same time that the facilities aren’t cages but instead that authorities built “walls out of chain-link fences.”

It’s clear that Nielsen would prefer that the Trump administration not be viewed as having put children in cages. That definitely carries connotations of much smaller enclosures and inhumane treatment. Merriam-Webster defines a “cage” as “a box or enclosure having some openwork for confining or carrying animals.”

But it also defines it as an area in which prisoners are kept and even as “an enclosure resembling a cage in form or purpose.”

And Trump himself has repeatedly referred to the facilities as cages when referring to pictures taken during the Obama administration.

In the end, Nielsen’s objection to “cages” is much like her objection to family separation being a “policy.” But just as a policy choice led to family separations, the facilities in which people are being held effectively serve to cage them.

And Nielsen herself admitted in her testimony that these facilities “were not made to detain children,” which suggests that there is definitely some kind of problem with their application.

This post has been updated with more details of the implementation of the “zero tolerance” policy.