Nielsen defends family separations: ‘Congress alone can fix it’
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Monday offered a combative defense of the Trump administration’s controversial policy of separating children from their parents who illegally cross the U.S. southern border.
During a surprise appearance in the White House press briefing room, Nielsen argued that the growing crisis involving children is “not new” to the Trump administration and defended the treatment of children in detention.
“This entire crisis, just to be clear, is not new,” Nielsen stated. “Currently, it is the exclusive product of loopholes in our federal immigration laws that prevent illegal immigrant minors and family members from being detained and removed to their home countries.”
Nielsen added: “Congress and the courts created this system, and Congress alone can fix it.”
The separations are, in fact, the result of a new “zero-tolerance” policy for people who cross the border illegally announced by the Trump administration in April.
Under the directive, all crossers are referred for prosecution and almost always jailed while awaiting trial.
More than 2,000 minors have been separated from their family members in just six weeks because children cannot be detained with their parents.
The separations have generated a national outcry from Republicans and Democrats alike, who say they are inhumane, and top administration officials have struggled to explain the policy.
Nielsen was summoned to lead the White House press briefing Monday after speaking to a gathering of sheriffs in New Orleans, where she also spoke out in favor of the immigration policy. The briefing was pushed back four hours to after 5 p.m. to allow Nielsen time to fly back to Washington.
The Homeland Security chief was peppered with questions during the briefing, which quickly grew heated, with some of her responses leaving reporters bewildered.
She claimed the separations were “not a policy” of the Trump administration, instead framing them as an unfortunate byproduct of the nation’s tangled immigration laws.
Asked if the separations are intentional, Nielsen responded, “I find that offensive.”
That stance has been publicly contradicted by a number of top officials.
White House chief of staff John John Kelly, who was Nielsen’s predecessor at DHS and remains a close ally, told NPR recently that the point of the separations are to prevent people from entering the country illegally.
“A big name of the game is deterrence,” he said in the interview last month, adding that separating children from parents “could be a tough deterrent — would be a tough deterrent.”
White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller also called the separations a “policy.”
“No nation can have the policy that whole classes of people are immune from immigration law or enforcement,” he told The New York Times. “It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period. The message is that no one is exempt from immigration law.”
Nielsen also said minors who are sent to juvenile detention centers “are being well taken care of,” even after audio emerged of crying children at one such center.
“Claiming these children and their parents are being treated inhumanely is not true,” she said, adding that the U.S. government has high standards for children in their custody.
Nielsen said she had not heard the recordings, which were published on Monday by ProPublica.
Later, a person in the briefing room played the audio recording of the children as Nielsen spoke.
More Administration News
See all Hill.TV See all Video
Energy & Environment