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Kirstjen Nielsen says it’s “offensive” to suggest the Trump administration is purposely separating families

But that’s exactly what the homeland security secretary and other officials are directing border agents to do.

DHS Secretary Kristjen Nielsen
DHS Secretary Kristjen Nielsen.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen doubled down on the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, falsely blaming Congress for the separation of families at the border and calling it “offensive” to suggest she oversaw a policy that intended to split up parents and kids.

“Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it,” Nielsen said. “Until then, we will enforce every law we have on the books to defend the sovereignty and security of the United States. Those who criticize the enforcement of our laws have offered only one countermeasure: open borders.”

The policy to separate families originated with the Trump administration’s decision to refer anyone caught illegally crossing the border for criminal prosecution. Children can’t stay with their parents while they’re in jail, so they’re removed from their parents’ custody. About 2,000 kids have been separated from their parents between April 19 and May 31.

Nielsen’s press briefing came after the Trump administration continued to stand by its border policy in the face of increasing pressure from Democrats, a growing number of Republican lawmakers, and former first ladies, including Laura Bush and Michelle Obama.

The problems with Nielsen’s remarks

Nielsen faced a barrage of questions about the separation of families at border crossings — whether it was cruel and inhumane, whether it was intended as a deterrent, and whether it was child abuse.

Nielsen dismissed the criticism and continued to insist that the onus is on Congress to fix the immigration system, and that the Trump administration is merely enforcing the law.

Nielsen also justified the policy by saying that separating kids from parents is not a “controversial idea” because if an American were to commit a crime in the US, “they would go to jail, and they would be separated from the family.” She said that the kids brought into Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services (HHS) care were being “well taken care of.” The government has released images of the shelters, which show kids in caged rooms.

In one exchange, a reporter asked Nielsen: “Are you intending for parents to be separated from their children? Are you intending to send a message?

“I find that offensive,” Nielsen fired back. “No. Because why would I create a policy that purposely does that?”

“Perhaps as a deterrent,” the reporter replied. (In May, Chief of Staff John Kelly told NPR, in response to a question about the administration’s immigration policy, that the “big name of the game is deterrence.”)

“That is not the question that you asked me,” Nielsen said after some cross-talk. “But the answer is, it is a law passed by the United States Congress. Rather than fixing the law, Congress is asking those of us who enforce the law to turn our backs on the law and not enforce the law.”

Nielsen also denied that kids were being used as pawns to pay for Trump’s border wall. “The kids are being used as pawns by the smugglers and the traffickers,” she said.

When asked if the administration’s use of family separation amounted to child abuse, Nielsen instead spoke about unaccompanied minors, rather than the 2,000 children US officials have removed from the custody of their parents.

“The vast, vast majority of children who are in the care of the HHS, 10,000 of the 12,000 were sent here alone by their parents,” Nielsen said. “That is when they were separated.”

“But there is two separate issues,” Nielsen continued. “Ten thousand of those currently in custody were sent by their parents with strangers to undertake a completely dangerous and deadly travel alone. We now care for them. We have high standards. We give them meals and we give them education and we give them medical care. There is videos, there is TVs, I visited the detention centers myself, that would be my answer to that question.”

Nielsen mounted similar arguments on Twitter on Sunday to justify the administration’s actions. The homeland security secretary reportedly fought Trump’s call to separate families at the border, but publicly she has only provided a full-throated defense of the administration’s decisions. Some Democratic politicians, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), have called on Nielsen to resign.

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