“Secretary Nielsen!” a male protester yelled as the group approached Nielsen’s table, according to live video footage posted on Facebook by Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America. “How dare you spend your evening here eating dinner as you’re complicit in the separation and deportation of over 10,000 children separated from their parents? How can you enjoy a Mexican dinner as you’re deporting and imprisoning tens of thousands of people who come here seeking asylum in the United States? We call on you to end family separation and abolish ICE!”
The secretary did not look up and did not appear to acknowledge the protesters as they began their chants of shame. At one point, she made a phone call.
“If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace!” the protesters yelled.
“In a Mexican restaurant, of all places!” one said.
“Have you listened to it? Do you hear the babies crying?” one said of audio leaked from an immigration facility to ProPublica in which children can be heard crying for their parents.
Just a few hours earlier, Nielsen had retweeted President Trump’s praise for the “fabulous job” she did at a news conference explaining the administration’s policy.
Homeland Security @SecNielsen did a fabulous job yesterday at the press conference explaining security at the border and for our country, while at the same time recommending changes to obsolete & nasty laws, which force family separation. We want “heart” and security in America!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 20, 2018
In a statement after the dinner, Department of Homeland Security press secretary Tyler Houlton described the protesters as people who “share her concern” about the current immigration system.
“While having a work dinner tonight,” he said, “the Secretary and her staff heard from a small group of protesters who share her concern with our current immigration laws that have created a crisis on our southern border. The Secretary encourages all — including this group — who want to see an immigration system that works, that contributes to our economy, that protects our security, and that reflects our values to reach out to Members of Congress and seek their support to close the terrible immigration loopholes that have made our system a mess. The Secretary has been working with Members of Congress for months in search of a solution and she will continue to do so this week.”
On Tuesday night, Nielsen’s security detail stood calmly in front of her table, and the U.S. Secret Service told The Post in a statement that no arrests were made. Witnesses standing at the bar said that the protesters remained nonviolent and were not aggressive. Brent Epperson, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Alberta visiting Washington for work, said that random customers in the restaurant, including him, even started clapping along with the protesters at their tables.
“A lot of people were very happy to see her shamed,” Epperson told The Post, but Nielsen and her dining companion “looked a little disturbed.” Spokespeople for DHS did not identify Nielsen’s companion when asked by The Post.
“They tried to pretend like nothing was happening, but it lasted long enough that they couldn’t,” Epperson said. “They were just sitting there like statues, waiting for the protest to end.”
A spokesperson for the Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America said via email that a diner at the restaurant tipped off the group that Nielsen was eating there, and they organized a “rapid-response” protest.
“While Secretary Nielsen’s dinner may have been ruined, it is nothing compared to the horrors she has inflicted on innocent families,” Margaret McLaughlin, a member of the organization, said in a statement.
Nielsen has become “the public face” of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” strategy that has separated more than 2,000 immigrant children from families over six weeks, even while erroneously insisting that it was not the result of a new policy, as The Post’s David Nakamura and Nick Miroff reported.
Neither Nielsen’s security nor management at the restaurant attempted to intervene or stop the protesters. Genovese said Nielsen simply paid the check after listening to the chanting for 10 or 15 minutes, then was escorted out by Secret Service agents.
The protesters left immediately afterward.
“It was like mission accomplished, and then they just headed out,” Genovese said.
What it looks like inside the facilities housing children separated at the border