Trump's new Homeland Security chief fits right in, unfortunately

Trump's new Homeland Security chief fits right in, unfortunately
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The deportation machine is revving up. In one of her first public addresses as the new head of Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTrump's top picks for Homeland Security chief are ineligible for job: reports Singer Brandi Carlile drops out of Fortune event over Kirstjen Nielsen's appearance Trump confirms Rick Perry to step down as Energy secretary MORE made it clear that she would fit in with the immigration hardliners in the Trump administration. 

Appearing Tuesday alongside Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump attacks Sessions: A 'total disaster' and 'an embarrassment to the great state of Alabama' Ocasio-Cortez fires back at Washington Times after story on her 'high-dollar hairdo' Trump's tirades, taunts and threats are damaging our democracy MORE in Baltimore, Nielsen stated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers will “no longer look the other way” when encountering “other immigration offenders” while in pursuit of “criminal aliens.” She backed the need for a border wall and called on Congress to do away with the diversity visa lottery.

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Nielsen would not have been nominated for this post if her views on immigration did not align with those of the president. Nonetheless, she presented a misleading picture of immigration enforcement under Trump. Nielsen’s comments are a reminder of how out-of-sync this administration is with the American people on immigration — and how intent DHS is on terrorizing Latino and immigrant communities. 

Nielsen made it sound as though Homeland Security and ICE are focusing on dangerous criminals who are here without authorization. “When you have finite resources, you have to prioritize, and criminal aliens remain a key priority for this administration in terms of removal,” she said. “Those are the people we’re focused on, those are our priorities for removal.”

That sounds pretty good ­— except that it is not an accurate description of what Homeland Security is actually doing. It was President Obama who prioritized violent criminals, along with recent arrivals and national security threats, for deportation. Then in January, Trump signed an executive order rescinding these priorities, putting virtually all undocumented people in the U.S. at risk for deportation. So despite Nielsen’s references to “criminal aliens,” this administration’s immigration enforcement priorities are, basically, anyone they can arrest.

This is borne out by ICE’s own statistics. In the first 100 days of the Trump administration, immigration arrests soared by almost 40 percent, these numbers driven by an increase of over 150 percent in the arrests of those the agency classifies as “non-criminals.”  During Trump’s first year in office, the number of undocumented immigrants without criminal convictions deported from the U.S. interior has also risen dramatically.

Contrary to Nielsen’s assertion, agents have not been “looking the other way” when it comes to immigration enforcement. Immigration authorities are feeling emboldened in the Trump era, and have gone after everyone from a mom of three to a child with cerebral palsy to military veterans. These days, a minor traffic stop can result in detention and swift deportation for an otherwise law-abiding undocumented person. Agents have targeted DREAMers and activists, often with a special focus on predominantly Latino neighborhoods. Such actions sow fear in Latino communities, and open the door to racial profiling and the civil rights violations of Hispanics.   

Nielsen stated that the U.S. needs a wall along our southern border with Mexico to “stem the tide of illegal crossings.” But illegal border crossings are down, report the New York Times and other outlets, and this is backed up by data from the government itself. Customs and Border Patrol statistics show that, for fiscal year 2017, there were a total of 310,531 apprehensions of unauthorized migrants — the lowest level in 17 years.   

Of course, Nielsen works for a president who shows little regard for Hispanic issues, and who favors restrictions on both illegal and legal immigration. No one expected her to be an advocate for immigrants. Yet she previously expressed support for a legislative fix to the plight of the DREAMers, and had worked in the past with George W. Bush officials who supported immigration reforms. It seemed fair to hope that she could have brought a more realistic perspective to Homeland Security. 

Now, just days into her new position, Nielsen appears to be comfortable conflating undocumented immigrants with crime — a link that is not supported by research.   

And consider that the Trump administration’s approach to immigration is at odds with the majority of Americans, who consistently back comprehensive reform, including a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients. A September poll by Fox News found that 83 percent of Americans favor letting undocumented immigrants stay here, compared with only 14 percent who want to deport them. 

It is telling that Homeland Security’s policies had to be mischaracterized and it is disappointing that Nielson may turn out to be a rubber stamp, rather than a voice of reason, for the president on a critical national issue. And it is deeply troubling that she has embraced the Trump administration’s wasteful and inhumane immigration enforcement priorities. 

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes.