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Immigration 101: Who is Kirstjen Nielsen?

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Originally published July 28, 2018; last updated May 10, 2019

Kirstjen Nielsen is the former Secretary of Homeland Security — who spent her tenure mostly acting as a rubber stamp of approval for the Trump Administration. 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 showed 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. As DHS Secretary, Nielsen echoed the Trump Administration’s attacks on immigrants and helped to remove protections that have characterized our immigration system for the last several decades.

She oversaw thousands of children being ripped from their families, supported gutting the TPS program, limited the ability for migrants to claim asylum, repeatedly lied about the details of family separation, failed to rein in her rogue agency, and defended Trump’s unnecessary wall and fake national emergency.  

And yet Nielsen’s extremism was not enough for Trump, who asked her to resign in April 2019 as part of a systematic purge of DHS.

Kirstjen Nielsen and the separation of families

Under Nielsen, DHS separated thousands of child asylum seekers from their families. Nielsen 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 2018, after the policy was widely criticized as cruel and inhumane.  Even after a court handed down an order to reunite families, DHS continued to separate parents from their children at the border.   

Nielsen made a number of demonstrably false statements about families that have been separated:

  • She falsely and repeatedly claimed that the Trump Administration did not have a family separation policy, via a tweet, press conference, and statement before Congress. Facts and internal memos contradict her statements.
  • Nielsen also falsely claimed the Administration’s family separation policy was not meant as a deterrent against migration — internal memos and statements from other Administration officials have said otherwise.  
  • She claimed that separated children were not put into cages, despite what numerous members of Congress saw and the photographs released by Customs and Border Protection, one of her own agencies under DHS.
  • She repeated the Administration’s false claim that the issue could only be resolved by Congress. (Good alternatives exist to both family separation and family detention, and the Trump Administration could walk away from its zero-tolerance policy at any time.)
  • She claimed that separated “minors are very well taken care of.” Her statement was contradicted by horrific stories of migrant children being forced to drink toilet water and leered at while in the shower.
  • Nielsen repeatedly claimed that parents who were deported without their children waived rights to reunification, which Politico showed was untrue.
  • Senator Jeff Merkley asked the FBI to investigate Nielsen for perjury surrounding her lies on the family separation policy.   

The Administration began a test of their family separation policy in El Paso, Texas, in the summer of 2017,  and then officially announced the “zero-tolerance” policy in April 2018. But Nielsen did not issue implementation guidelines until May 4, 2018.  She said she waited because she wanted to implement the policy “with compassion.” Far from it, Nielsen’s complete lack of foresight likely led to additional harm and cruelty for children and separated families, because the agencies involved could not prepare for the policy.

  • DHS failed to properly keep records on which child belonged to which parents, and in some cases destroyed or failed to share records. This led them to completely fail to meet the court’s deadline to reunite families they separated. Because some parents had already been deported, while others were in locations unknown to DHS and HHS, it took months for some families to be reunited — and some children remain separated from their families today.
  • Nielsen also failed to understand the long and short term physical, mental, and developmental effects that separations would cause. The policy was not only cruel on its face but inflicted new trauma to children and families.

Nielsen’s “leadership” on the family separation debacle 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 Nielsen 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.

Many leading members of Congress called for Nielsen’s resignation before she stepped down; here are a few:

Kirstjen Nielsen and asylum seekers

Unfortunately, family separation and zero tolerance was not the only way Nielsen’s DHS sought to deny and deter asylum seekers. Following the lead of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Nielsen helped to undermine a huge number of asylum claims in a fundamental rework of the system, including attempting to deny gang- and domestic violence-based asylum claims.

Even before Nielsen’s tenure began, trying to claim asylum was a long process. Recently, Nielsen defended the practice of  “border metering” — intentionally slowing and limiting the number of migrants who can present themselves at a port of entry. This practice forced migrants to wait in line for weeks in terrible and sometime dangerous conditions.

Nielsen even sent so far as to temporarily close the San Ysidro border crossing, the largest port of entry along the border. When a group in confusion tried to enter anyway, Nielsen’s border patrol responded with tear gas — into a crowd that included mothers and children.   

Nielsen’s CBP also repeatedly turned away asylum seekers at the border — a violation of domestic and international law. At the border, migrants seeking asylum have been told go away, harassed, or sent to other ports of entry.

Kirstjen Nielsen and temporary protected status (TPS)

Under Nielsen, DHS ended a number of TPS designations, a pattern seen repeatedly under the Trump Administration. DHS 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.

Nielsen 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.

Nielsen extended but refused to redesignate TPS for Somalis, Yemenis, and Syrians, leaving immigrants from these war-torn countries unprotected and vulnerable to deportations back to war zones.   

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. Nielsen also resisted widespread calls to protect Guatemalans under TPS.

The courts, however, have temporarily blocked Nielsen from ending protections for TPS holders from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan. Currently, the Dream and Promise Act is making its way through Congress; among other protections, it would extend a pathway to citizenship for TPS holders. Find out more here.

Kirstjen Nielsen and Trump’s wall and fake national emergency

During her confirmation hearing, Nielsen said a wall “from sea to shining sea” was unnecessary. Once in the job, however, Nielsen reversed course and repeatedly called for funding for Trump’s border wall.

In the same vein, Nielsen also defended the fake Trump national emergency declared after Congress refused to pay for the president’s unnecessary border wall. Nielsen’s support was an outlier among national security experts. “Trump is diverting financial and military resources and the attention of policymakers to prepare for threats that are far more real, pervasive and deadly. He also is impeding the public’s ability to understand the likelihood of threats against which they need to protect themselves,” wrote former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Kirstjen Nielsen’s rogue agencies

Nielsen also failed to rein in the continuing abuses of ICE and CBP, which have been unshackled under the Trump Administration.  Under her leadership ICE continued their indiscriminate and cruel enforcement against long-settled immigrants, increasing detentions by 65 percent in 2018.

ICE and CBP detentions and deportations under Nielsen resulted in numerous deaths. Dara Lind at Vox recounted some of the suicides and murders connected to ICE and CBP. In one tragic case, a toddler died shortly after being released from ICE custody. CBP also shot and killed an unarmed undocumented woman at the southern border.

Nielsen’s DHS compiled detailed lists on reporters, lawyers, activists to question at the U.S./Mexico border and pulled them in for repeated questioning. This practice led to an investigation by the inspector general of ICE practices.

How Kirstjen Nielsen advanced the White House’s anti-immigrant policies

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 was not equipped for that role, and that there was not a legitimate need for more enforcement as border crossings were at historic lows.

Nielsen also supported sending even more troops to the U.S./Mexico border right before the 2018 midterms, supporting Trump’s racist election stunt. She did so over the objections of commandant of the Marines, General Robert Neller, who warned it would be an “unacceptable risk to Marine Corps combat readiness and solvency.”

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.”

Things Kirstjen Nielsen said:

Nielsen repeatedly pretended to not be aware of things Trump, her boss, has said and done.

  • “I did not hear” Trump say “shithole” about Haiti and African countries, in contradiction of all the previous reports about a January 2018 immigration meeting, prompting Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) to say she “lied under oath” to Congress.
  • “It’s not that one side was right and one side was wrong,” Nielsen said in defense of Donald Trump’s infamous 2017 comments about the deadly attack on anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville.
  • Said she was unaware of the 16-month-old intelligence report finding that there was pro-Trump Russian interference in the 2016 election. Later, Nielsen said “I haven’t seen any evidence that the attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party,” in stark contradiction to what the entire U.S. intelligence community laid out.
  • Falsely claimed “there are billboards in Central America in the Northern Triangle countries advertising how to grab a kid to get into the United States illegally.”
  • “We do not have any intention right now to shoot at people,” Nielsen told Fox News in October 2018.

Before heading DHS

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.

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