(CNSNews.com) – DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended the Trump administration’s enforcement of U.S. immigration law by pointing out that illegal immigrants were detained without their children the same way that the past three administrations handled it, because in the U.S. children aren’t sent to jail with their parents.
During Wednesday’s House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) questioned Nielsen about her prior knowledge of the DOJ’s zero tolerance policy towards illegal immigrants who sneak across the border and how it would affect illegal minors.
“As a consequence for a parent going to jail, we in this country do not take the children to jail,” Nielsen said.
"So I take that as a yes, that you understood that the zero tolerance policy was going to lead to minors being separated from their parents,” Rice said.
“As it has in the last three administrations,” the secretary said.
Nielsen said to the best of her knowledge, no illegal immigrant parent was deported while she was at the helm of DHS without finding out whether they wanted their children to be deported with them.
RICE: Can you confirm that there has never been a parent deported under your tenure without finding out if they want their children to go with them. Simply yes or no. Can you confirm that?
NIELSEN: To the best of my knowledge, every parent was afforded that option.
RICE: On June 17 of 2018, you tweeted, ‘We do not have a policy of separating families at the border.’ Then Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Justice Department’s zero tolerance policy to prosecute all individuals who cross the border outside of ports of entry, and he made that announcement on April 6 of 2018. In a memo to you dated April 23rd, regarding the Justice Department’s zero tolerance policy, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, USCIS Director Francis Cissna, and then ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan stated 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. Did you read that memo? Yes or no?
RICE: Did you concur with this assessment made by your component agency leaders? Yes or no?
NIELSEN I--- is there many assessments in there? I concurred with their recommendation on what to do to increase consequences for those crossing the border illegally.
RICE: The piece that I just read, do you concur with that?
NIELSEN: I’m sorry. Could you read that particular—
RICE: ‘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.’ That specific statement.
NIELSEN: As I understand it we have the legal authority to do that. Yes.
RICE: Did you agree with that?
NIELSEN: What I agreed to do is---
RICE: Did you agree with that assessment that they made?
NIELSEN: That wasn’t a recommendation, ma’am. It’s a legal statement. We do have the legal authority to do it as I understand it.
RICE: Were you aware that the zero tolerance policy would lead to minors being separated from their parents? Yes or no?
NIELSEN: As we increase consequences for those who break the law, just as---
RICE: Yes or no—look I have such limited time, Madame Secretary. I’m sure you can appreciate that.
NIELSEN: As a consequence for a parent going to jail, we in this country do not take the children to jail.
RICE: So I take that as a yes, that you understood that the zero tolerance policy was going to lead to minors being separated from their parents.
NIELSEN: As it has in the last three administrations.
RICE: So the answer is yes. At the end of February, Buzzfeed News reported that you did not issue guidance on how to implement the zero tolerance policy until May 4th, which was about a month after the Attorney General Sessions announced the policy. Did you discuss this policy with Attorney General Sessions before he announced it on April 6th? Yes or no?
NIELSEN: This was an ongoing discussion.
RICE: No, yes or no? Did you discuss the zero tolerance policy with the then Attorney General Sessions before he made the announcement on April 6? Yes or no?
NIELSEN: Some time before the announcement, we have the conversation. I did not know he was making that announcement that day.
RICE: But you had a conversation with him about the zero tolerance policy. Yes or no?
NIELSEN: Zero tolerance means prosecuting those who break the law. Yes. We as law enforcement agencies talk about prosecuting those who break the law.
RICE: Yes, thank you. Thank you. So then why did you wait until May 4th to issue implementation guidelines?
NIELSEN: Because we wanted to work within the department to ensure we could do it in a appropriately safe way with compassion as you mentioned. A memo from my component heads came April 23rd. I then issued – after many consultations with them – the direction to increase prosecution between ports of entry, which is the only place where that’s against the law, for all adults coming across the border illegally.
RICE: We all know the results of the policy and the compassionate or lack of compassion--
NIELSEN: Ma’am, it’s not a policy. It’s the law. We enforce the law.