Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen tells Aspen crowd ‘we have to fix’ immigration system
July 19, 2018
Saying repeatedly that this country's immigration system and the laws that dictate separating children from their parents at the border are fundamentally flawed, the head of the Department of Homeland Security said Thursday in Aspen that she will do her best to meet a court-set deadline to reunite families.
"We will do our best, but we will not cut corners," said Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of Homeland Security. "This is about the protection of the child."
Nielsen spoke for an hour with NBC News' Peter Alexander in the Doerr Hosier Center as part of the Aspen Security Forum.
July 26 is the deadline set by a federal judge for the government to reunite an estimated 2,500 children with their parents who illegally crossed the U.S. border.
Most of those families were fleeing violence in countries including Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala and were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy on immigration.
"We have 10,000 unaccompanied children right now in DHS care," Nielsen said. "So, these parents sent them on this journey without any parental supervision with smugglers, traffickers, with other adults. They have no advocates. They are here alone. DHS is taking care of them. So we have to fix the system."
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Nielsen said the problem with the immigration system is that the ideals and empirical truths that Americans have cannot be true at the same time.
"Kids should be with their parents, countries should be able to protect borders, governments should be able to protect communities," she said, adding that it is the job of Congress to fix the system with new laws.
Alexander asked Nielsen that when she visits the detention centers in Texas and other facilities at the border, if she questions as a human being what the country is doing to these children.
Nielsen said, in so many words, that her hands are tied.
"I say, 'This is crazy,'" she said, later adding, "Look, we have a constitutional imbalance right now, just to be clear …
"We have Congress telling the executive branch, 'Don't enforce the laws we pass. We don't have courage to fix them.' We have the judicial branch, who is neither operational nor a legislative body, saying, 'This is how we want you to enforce the law' in a very tactical way, thereby making a law. How it should work is Congress should make the laws, the law enforcement bodies should enforce the laws and the judicial branch should interpret them.
"We have to make sure that the system allows to keep children and families together," Nielsen continued. "Right now under the law in court cases we cannot do that."
Nielsen has met with leaders of Guatemala and Mexico to discuss strategy to stabilize their countries so their citizens aren't forced to flee.
But more importantly, she is working with international communities to provide asylum at various points in immigrants' long journey to the United States.
"This journey, I mean, smugglers are not humanitarians," Nielsen said, noting that DHS gives pregnancy tests to every girl older than 10 years old who comes across the border illegally. "I can guarantee this journey is terrible. It's in everyone's interest to get the smugglers out of the way."
She said that since President Donald Trump signed an executive order last month, the DHS is no longer separating families at illegal ports of entry — unless the agency cannot guarantee that a parent or adult is the child's legal guardian; if the child is in clear danger; or if the accompanying adult has to go to a criminal detention center.
Twenty percent of the adults who have accompanied children younger than 5 years old at the border were determined not be fit to be reunited — the vast majority were smugglers or traffickers, kidnappers, murderers, child abusers and exploiters, Nielsen said.
"These are adults in American society we would never place with American children," she said. "We owe the same protections to children from anywhere."
On the topic of Russian interference in the 2016 election, which President Trump suggested earlier this week that it could be "other people also," Nielsen said her agency believes it's singularly the Russian government that played a role.
"I don't think there is any question in the intel community or at DHS that Russians attempted to infiltrate and interfere with our electoral system. They have the capability. They have the intent," she said. "I don't think there is any doubt that they did it and we should all be prepared, given that capability and will, that they'll do it again."
Nielsen stopped short of saying the meddling was under the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin to help Trump's campaign.
"It's government actors, we can draw our own conclusions what that means," she said, adding that the Russian interference wasn't targeted toward one specific political party.
"Their intent is to absolutely interfere in our democracy."