Faced with a burgeoning political, policy and human rights crisis on the country’s southern border, the White House turned to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to quiet the firestorm.
It didn’t work. At all.
Nielsen, a protege of White House chief of staff John Kelly and a hardliner on immigration along the lines of President Donald Trump, tried and failed – badly – to explain why the forced separation of families trying to enter the country illegally was, well, not the Trump administration’s fault.
There was a lot wrong with what Nielsen said – and how she said it. Here are five things (and you can see the full transcript here):
1. She offered a technical response to a deeply emotional issue
From the start, Nielsen was all facts and figures – all aimed at making the case that family unit arrivals, particularly from Central America, have soared in recent years. (She’s right; they have.) But this is not a purely numbers issue. It’s an emotional one too. It’s about seeing little kids taken from their parents and wondering how your son or daughter would react in that situation. Hearing the cries of small children desperate to find someone – anyone – who can take them to a relative. This issue isn’t just about dry policy-making. It’s about people too. And Nielsen never even nodded to that fact.
2. She kept saying only Congress could fix it
Nope! To be clear: If Trump wanted to stop the “zero-tolerance” policy that had led to the rapid increase in children being separated from their families, he could. He could simply make clear to DHS officials that they should not refer every single person who tries to enter the country illegally for prosecution.
What is Nielsen talking about then? She is using the current family separation crisis as a way to argue that Democrats need to give Trump what he wants on funding for the border wall. So yes, Congress could address the issue of family separation as part of a broader bill dealing with financing for border security measures.
But, Trump could also simply call off the “zero-tolerance” policy.
3. She kept talking about how the administration had no choice but to enforce the law
On its face, this argument makes perfect sense. How can we have a country if we don’t have laws and if we don’t enforce those laws? “Our policy at DHS is to do what we’re sworn to do, which is to enforce the law,” Nielsen said.
But discretion in how laws are enforced is essential in all sorts of areas. If you are going 57 miles an hour in a 55 mile per hour zone, you are technically breaking the law and should be penalized. But very few cops pull people over for going two miles an hour over the speed limit. There are a million other examples where the law says one thing but it is enforced in a way that doesn’t follow the letter of the law.
The idea that Nielsen, DHS and the broader Trump administration has no choice but to separate these families is ludicrous.
4. She feigned ignorance about the photos of children in cages
Here’s Nielsen’s full response when asked about the pictures:
“I have – I have not seen something that came out today but I have been to detention centers and, again, I would reference you to our standards and I would reference you to the care provided not just by the Department of Homeland Security, but by the Department of Health and Human Services when they get to H.H.S.”
I mean, come on. She hasn’t seen any of those photos? Has she spent the last 96 hours on a neighboring planet?
5. She blamed the families for creating a false narrative
After Nielsen claimed, repeatedly, that she had not seen the widely circulated photos of children being kept in cages, she then said that the photos were being selectively chosen to tell only one side of the story.
Here’s her quote:
“I think that they reflect the focus of those who post such pictures and narratives. The narratives we don’t see are the narratives of the crime, of the opioids, of the smugglers, of who are people killed by gang members, of American children who are recruited and then when they lose the drugs they’re tased and beaten.”
I don’t think that’s why people are posting photos, Secretary Nielsen.