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Kirstjen Nielsen is the current Secretary of Homeland Security — who acts mostly as a rubber stamp of approval for what the Trump Administration wants. DHS is a huge department created in 2003 that oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and other agencies. Nielsen had little public presence before being nominated for the job in October 2017, following her predecessor John Kelly’s advancement to White House as Chief of Staff. As head of DHS, she has shown little independence from the White House, as many feared during her nomination.
Before leading DHS, Nielsen worked in the Transportation Security Administration, served in George W. Bush’s White House Homeland Security Council, spent time as a corporate attorney, and worked as a Congressional staff member. She then became chief deputy to John Kelly while he led DHS through the first few months of Trump’s presidency. Since taking the office, Nielsen has echoed the Trump Administration’s attacks on immigrants and helped to remove protections that have characterized our immigration system for the last several decades.
Under Nielsen, DHS has separated thousands of child asylum seekers from their families. Nielsen has repeatedly defended the “zero-tolerance policy” that resulted in the family separations, and become one of the most public faces of the policy. “We will not apologize”, Nielsen said in June, after the policy was widely criticized as cruel and inhumane.
The complete lack of foresight and competence on the part of DHS (as well as the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS) has led to delays and complications for reuniting separated children with their families. Because HHS and DHS failed to properly keep records on which child belonged to which parents, and in some cases destroyed or failed to share records, hundreds of children as of this writing remain apart from their families despite a judge’s court-ordered deadline that they be reunited by now. Because some parents have already been deported, while others are in locations unknown to DHS and HHS, experts warn that it could be years before all separated children are back with their families.
Nielsen’s “leadership” on the family separation debacle has caused the resignations of four members of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, the departure of at least one ICE lawyer, and a request from 19 ICE investigators to split apart the agency. In a letter to Nielson the former members of the advisory council wrote, taking “children from migrant parents was morally repugnant, counter-productive and ill-considered.” “Under your administration and that of Donald Trump’s, DHS has been transformed into an agency that is making war on immigrants and refugees,” Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman wrote in a separate resignation letter to Nielsen.
Following the lead of Jeff Sessions, Nielsen has also helped to undermine a huge number of asylum claims in a fundamental rework of the system. Nielsen’s CBP has repeatedly turned away asylum seekers at the border — a violation of international law. And she has failed to rein in the continuing abuses of ICE and CBP, which have been unshackled under the Trump Administration.
Under Nielsen, DHS has ended a number of TPS designations, a pattern seen repeatedly under the Trump Administration. DHS has ended TPS designations even as experts at the State Department warned that ending the program could hurt national security and economic interests, increase undocumented immigration, and bolster the MS-13 gangs that Trump constantly makes a talking point.
Neilson ended TPS for 200,000 Salvadorans, some who have been living in the U.S. since the 1980s. The ending of TPS for Salvadorans is part of an ongoing lawsuit that argues the ending of some TPS designations was racially motivated. Nielsen also ended TPS for the Sudanese and 9,000 Nepalese, against the written request of 23 senators who said Nepal was still rebuilding after the devastating April 2015 earthquake.
Nielsen’s DHS ended TPS for over 60,000 Hondurrans. Her predecessor, Elaine Duke, resisted pressure from John Kelly to end TPS for Hondurans, refusing to make a designation before the November 2017 deadline, which allowed Honduran TPS to automatically extend for six months.
The ending of TPS for hundreds of thousands of immigrants under Nielsen’s watch is creating another family separation crisis. More than 270,000 children who are U.S. citizens have a parent who has TPS, who will have to face taking their children with them to dangerous countries or leaving them in the U.S.
And as of this writing Nielsen has resisted widespread calls to protect Guatemalans under TPS.
After the courts blocked the Trump Administration’s attempt to end DACA protections for Dreamers, Nielsen filed a memorandum restating the legal justification DHS claimed for ending DACA — even though that justification reasserted the same flawed argument that the court already rejected.
Nielsen defended Trump’s sending the National Guard to the border, even though it was a completely political and strategically useless stunt. James Stavridis, former NATO commander and commander of U.S. Southern Command, said it was waste of resources, that the National Guard were not equipped for that role, and that there was not a legitimate need for more enforcement as border crossings were at historic lows.
When the Senate considered a bipartisan bill in February 2018, Nielsen’s DHS released a statement claiming that the bill would ignore the rule of law. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who co-sponsored the bill, called DHS’ statement “poisonous” and “ridiculous.”
Nielsen has repeatedly pretended to not be aware of things Trump, her boss, has said and done.
Nielsen was the special assistant to the president for prevention, preparedness, and response during Hurricane Katrina. Her job was to manage the flow of information getting to President George W. Bush in regards to disaster management. Nielsen received an email from emergency planning officials six months before the storm, and her team was directly singled out for blame by two congressional reports that said they failed to act. Nielsen, who now oversees FEMA, a part of DHS, was blasted during the ongoing catastrophe in Puerto Rico where Hurricane Maria killed more than 4,600 people and crippled the island’s infrastructure for months.