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Washington CNN  — 

House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings slammed acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and border conditions during a dramatic congressional hearing Thursday, at one point asking if the department has an “empathy deficit.”

Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, demanded “improvement” in a heated exchanged with McAleenan.

After McAleenan said they were “doing our level best,” Cummings interrupted and raised his voice: “What does that mean? What does that mean when a child is sitting in their own feces, can’t take a shower?Come on, man. What’s that about? None of us would have our children in that position. They are human beings.”

The back and forth was indicative of the frustration held among lawmakers and the department amid deteriorating conditions at the border.

“I can tell you that I am at a point where I begin to wonder whether there is an empathy deficit,” Cummings said while questioning McAleenan.

McAleenan objected to the suggestion from Cummings.

“I just wonder why would an agency if they have a deficiency of empathy, create a Border Search Trauma and Rescue team to try to protect people that are making this dangerous crossing and make over 4,000 rescues a year, on their own time with the collateral duty apply to be emergency medical technicians so they can help people in dangerous conditions,” McAleenan said.

“Where’s the deficit of empathy there?” he added.

Cummings later clarified he was referring to the “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in thousands of children being separated from their families. Cummings and McAleenan also agreed to travel to the border together.

Would ‘go back and redo’ zero tolerance policy

Fewer than 1,000 children have been separated from their parents at the southern border this fiscal year, McAleenan said earlier in the hearing.

“I want to start with the rare portion of this, fewer than 1,000 juveniles have been separated from their parents crossing the border this fiscal year, that’s with 450,000 crossings of family units,” McAleenan said.

Later in the hearing, McAleenan said he would “go back and redo” the zero-tolerance policy if he could, saying the policy played a role in the department losing the public trust.

McAleenan’s testimony Thursday comes amid increased scrutiny on conditions at facilities along the southern border and an investigation into secret Facebook groups where former and current Border Patrol agents posted lewd content.

The acting secretary defended his department, blasting “incendiary and overwrought attacks on the men and women securing our border” as “damaging.”

“These false and overheated attacks are not helping to resolve the crisis,” he said. “Indeed, they diminish the public’s understanding and cloud its perception of what is happening.”

Public anger against Border Patrol has grown in the wake of ProPublica reporting earlier this month that revealed a private Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents that reportedly featured jokes about migrant deaths, derogatory comments about Latina lawmakers and a lewd meme involving Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York.

When pressed by Ocasio-Cortez, McAleenan said that there is an “aggressive” ongoing investigation into the Facebook group of current and former CBP agents that has already placed several people on administrative leave.

‘Beyond crisis levels’

Democrats and Republicans have sparred over the worsening situation at the border. The fracturing between parties became clear in lines of questioning as Republicans accused Democrats of inaction, and while Democrats largely focused on the administration’s policy that led to the separation of thousands of families last year.

McAleenan emphasized the unprecedented nature of the border numbers, and called for legislative action. Despite some improvements, he said “border flows and the custody situation remain beyond crisis levels.”

Last week, the House Oversight Committee released a report revealing more details of how the administration’s controversial “zero tolerance” policy unfolded last year. The report, based on data obtained by the committee under subpoena from the Trump administration, provided new information about at least 2,648 children who were separated from their parents during the last fiscal year.

“Mr. McAleenan is one of the key architects of the Trump administration’s child separation policy,” Cummings said at the start of the hearing, citing a memo sent to then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on how separations could be directed. “He recommended going forward with this policy, she agreed.”

McAleenan acknowledged the policy, which the President has since ended through executive order.

“I have acknowledged that this initiative, while well-intended, lost the public trust and that President Trump was right to end it,” McAleenan said.

He added that separations occur if there’s criminal background or separate issue, like “potential communicable disease or medical emergency, or risk of abuse or neglect from the parent to the child.”

“This is in the interest of the child. It’s carefully governed. It’s overseen by a supervisor and those decisions are made,” he noted.

Last month, Congress passed a $4.6 billion bill to send emergency funding to the border.

McAleenan said funds are being used to create temporary facilities to alleviate overcrowding and improve conditions for migrants in custody.

US Border Patrol apprehensions along the southern border dropped in June for the first month since January.

There were nearly 95,000 apprehensions on the US-Mexico border last month, down about 28% from 132,887 in May – the highest month in more than a decade. Despite the drop, this June was much higher than the same time last year, when there were 34,089 apprehensions.

A dip in border crossings is common during the hot summer months, though McAleenan has previously downplayed the role of seasonal trends in migration, saying that he expects to be able to tell by late July if initiatives undertaken by the US and Mexico governments will have a sustained impact.