As Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen has gone to great lengths to pretend that the government agency she runs had nothing to do with Trump’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border. But according to a memo that Nielsen personally signed, she was fully aware of the policy while it was in place.
The memo was first reported by the Washington Post in April, shortly after Nielsen signed it, but was first published in full by Buzzfeed News tonight, after being released by Open the Government and the Project on Government Oversight.
At the height of the family separation crisis, Nielsen was repeatedly and publicly adamant that the hullabaloo about child separation was not the DHS’s fault — instead, it was Democrats, the press, and “advocacy groups” that were making a big deal over nothing.
But less than a month before that, on April 23, Nielsen received a memo that explicitly codified separation as part of her power as the Secretary of Homeland Security.
Here’s the relevant bit of the memo (emphasis ours):
The Secretary of Homeland Security has broad legal authorities to carry out her responsibility to enforce the immigration laws. DHS could also permissibly direct the separation of parents or legal guardians and minors held in immigration detention so that the parent or legal guardian can be prosecuted pursuant to these authorities.
The memo notes that under Jeff Sessions’ Zero-Tolerance policy, enacted on April 6, anyone caught crossing the border illegally, even if they were planning on filing for asylum, can and should be prosecuted. It specifically says that the this may involve taking away their kids. Since she signed the memo, it’s fair to assume that Nielsen also read it. She knew what it said when she tweeted out “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.” And she knew exactly what it was authorizing her department to do.
But taking kids away from their parents doesn’t look good, and created an ongoing backlash from the public. The memo notes that in the three weeks prior to when it was written, the DHS apprehended around 450 family units, or FMUs, that it considers “inadmissible” at the border every day. Under Nielsen’s policy, any one of those family units could have been broken up, had their children taken, and perhaps lost for good. The DHS ostensibly ended the child separation policy in July, but there are still 12,800 migrant children currently detained in the United States, with or without their families. And those are just the ones we know about. At the height of the crisis, there were 1,475 immigrant children unaccounted for by the government. Just days ago, we found out that there are another 1,500 children who entered the U.S. this year that the government cannot find.
Nielsen tried to pass all of this off as an overreaction, claiming that it was the press or advocacy groups trying to spin this thing into something it wasn’t. We didn’t need this memo to tell us that was a lie, but it sure as hell doesn’t hurt.