Embattled Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Monday provided the most extensive defense to date of the Trump administration's policy of separating families who immigrated illegally at the border, submitting to questions at the White House press briefing.
The briefing included a number of tense exchanges, odd claims and contradictory signals. Below is the full transcript, with our annotations.
NIELSEN: Well, good afternoon. It is my pleasure to be here because I would love to see if I can help explain some of what's going on and give you some of the facts. I know there have been a lot put out there, but hopefully we can clarify some things today.
I just wanted to start by thanking the sheriffs of the United States. I had the privilege of speaking to them this morning at the National Sheriffs' Association Conference. We are so thankful for their partnership at DHS and all they do to protect our community. So I thank them.
So I want to provide you an update on the illegal immigration crisis on our southern border and the effects — the efforts the administration is taking to solve this crisis and to stop the flood of illegal immigrants, drugs, contraband, and crime coming across the border.
So let's just start with a few numbers and facts. So in the last three months, we have seen illegal immigration on our southern border exceed 50,000 people each month. Multiples over each month last year.
Since this time last year, there has been a 325 percent increase in unaccompanied alien children and a 435 percent increase in family units entering the country illegally.
Over the last 10 years, there has been a 1,700 percent increase in asylum claims, resulting in asylum backlog to date, on our country, of 600,000 cases.
Since 2013, the United States has admitted more than half a million illegal immigrant minors and family units from Central America, most of whom today are at large in the United States. At the same time, large criminal organizations such as MS-13 have violated our borders and gained a deadly foothold within the United States.
This entire crisis, just to be clear, is not new. It's been occurring and expanded over many decades. But currently, it is the exclusive product of loopholes in our federal immigration laws that prevent illegal immigrant minors and family members from being detained and removed to their home countries.
In other words, these loopholes create a functionally open border. Apprehension without detention and removal is not border security. We have repeatedly called on Congress to close these loopholes. I, myself, have met with as many members have been willing to meet with me. I've testified seven times. I will continue to make myself available to ask that they work with us to solve this crisis.
Yet the voices most loudly criticizing the enforcement of our current laws are those whose policies created this crisis and whose policies perpetrate it.
In particular, we need to reform three major loopholes. Let me quickly walk you through them. First, we need to amend the 2008 Trafficking Victims Prevention Reauthorization Act, or TVPR — which is much easier to say. This law encourages families to put children in the hands of smugglers to bring them alone on this dangerous trek northward. And make no mistake, we've talked about this before — this trek is dangerous and deadly.
Second, we need to reform our asylum laws to end the systemic abuse of our asylum system and stop fraud. Right now, our asylum system fails to assist asylum seekers who legitimately need it. We are a country of compassion. We are a country of heart. We must fix the system so that those who truly need asylum can, in fact, receive it.
Third, we need to amend the Flores Settlement Agreement and recent expansions which currently allow for — which would allow for family detention during the removal process. And we need Congress to fully fund our ability to hold families together through the immigration process.
Until these loopholes are closed by Congress, it is not possible, as a matter of law, to detain and remove whole family units who arrive illegally in the United States.
Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it. 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 quick release of all illegal alien families and the decision not to enforce our laws. This policy would be disastrous. Its prime beneficiaries would be the smuggling organizations themselves, and the prime victims would be the children who would be plunged into the smuggling machines and get gang recruitment on the trip north.
There's a lot of misinformation about what DHS is and is not doing as it relates to families at the border and I want to correct the record. Here are the facts:
First, this administration did not create a policy of separating families at the border. We have a statutory responsibility that we take seriously to protect alien children from human smuggling, trafficking, and other criminal actions while enforcing our immigration laws.
We have a long-existing policy. Multiple administrations have followed that outline when we may take action to protect children. We will separate those who claim to be a parent and child if we cannot determine a familial or custodial relationship exists.
For example, if there's no documentation to confirm the claimed relationship between an adult and a child, we do so if the parent is a national security, public or safety risk, including when there are criminal charges at issue and it may not be appropriate to maintain the family in detention together.
We also separate a parent and child if the adult is suspected of human trafficking. There have been cases where minors have been used and trafficked by unrelated adults in an effort to avoid detention. And I'd stop here to say, in the last five months, we have a 314 percent increase in adults and children arriving at the border, fraudulently claiming to be a family unit. This is, obviously, of concern.
And separation can occur when the parent is charged with human smuggling. Under those circumstances, we would detain the parent in an appropriate secure detention facility separate from the child.
What has changed is that we no longer exempt entire classes of people who break the law. Everyone is subject to prosecution. When DHS refers a case against a parent or legal guardian for criminal prosecution, the parent or legal guardian will be placed into the U.S. Marshals Service custody for pretrial determination, pursuant to an order by a federal judge. And any accompanied child will be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services and will be reclassified as an unaccompanied alien child. That is in accordance with the TVPRA — a law that was passed by Congress — and a following court order, neither which are actions the Trump administration has taken.
And let's be clear: If an American were to commit a crime anywhere in the United States, they would go to jail and they would be separated from their family. This is not a controversial idea.
Second, children in DHS and HHS custody are being well taken care of. The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement provides meals, medical care, and educational services to these children. They are provided temporary shelter. And HHS works hard to find a parent, relative, or foster home to care for these children. Parents can still communicate with their children through phone calls and video conferencing.
And a parent who is released from custody can be a sponsor and ask HHS to release the child back into their care. Further, these minors can still apply for asylum and other protections under U.S. immigration law, if eligible.
We take allegations of mistreatment seriously. And I want to stress this point: We investigate. We hold those accountable when, and if, it should occur. We have some of the highest detention standards in the country. Claiming these children and their parents are treated inhumanely is not true and completely disrespects the hard-working men and women at the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Third, parents who entered illegally are, by definition, criminals. Illegal entry is a crime as determined by Congress. By entering our country illegally, often in dangerous circumstances, illegal immigrants have put their children at risk.
Fourth, CBP and ICE officers are properly trained to care for minors in their custody. DHS and HHS treats all individuals in its custody with dignity and respect, and complies with all laws and policy. This reinforces and reiterates the needs to consider the best interest of the children, and mandates adherence to establish protocols to protect at-risk populations, to include standards for the transport and treatment of minors in DHS and HHS custody.
Additionally, all U.S. Border Patrol personnel in the southwest border are bilingual — every last one of them. They are directed to clearly explain the relevant process to apprehended individuals, and provide detainees with written documentation in both Spanish and English that lays out the process and appropriate phone numbers to contact.
And finally, DHS is not separating families legitimately seeking asylum at ports of entry. If an adult enters at a port of entry and claims asylum, they will not face prosecution for illegal entry. They have not committed a crime by coming to the port of entry.
As I mentioned, DHS does have a responsibility to protect minors. And in that case, as well, we will only separate the family if we cannot determine there is a familiar relationship, if the child may be at risk with the parent or legal guardian, or if the parent or legal guardian is referred for prosecution.
We have a duty to protect the American people, and it's one that I take very seriously. Here is the bottom line: DHS is no longer ignoring the law. We are enforcing the laws as they exist on the books. As long as illegal entry remains a criminal offense, DHS will not look the other way. DHS will faithfully execute the laws enacted by Congress, as we are sworn to do.
As I said earlier today, surely it is the beginning of the unraveling of democracy when the body who makes the laws, instead of changing them, tells the enforcement body not to enforce the law. I ask Congress to act this week so that we can secure our borders and uphold our humanitarian ideas. These two missions should not be pitted against each other. If we close the loopholes, we can accomplish both.
Before I take questions, I just want to ask that, in your reporting, please consider the men and women of DHS who are dedicated law enforcement officers and who often put their lives at risk. Let's remember their sacrifice and commitment to this country.
And with that, I'll take some questions. Yes.
Q: Secretary Nielsen, if you could, what you talked about there — DHS is no longer ignoring the law — you're calling on Congress to change the law.
Q: I mean, that is the big message here. Members of Congress on the Democratic side say that you're using children as a lever to try to get them to take legislative action. What do you say to that?
NIELSEN: I say that is a very cowardly response. It's clearly within their power to make the laws and change the laws. They should do so.
Q: Have you seen the photos of children in cages? Have you heard the audio clip of these children wailing, that just came out today?
NIELSEN: I have not seen — as something that came out today. But I have been to detention centers. And again, I would reference you to our standards. I would reference you to the care provided not just by the Department of Homeland Security but by the Department of Health and Human Services when they get to HHS.
Q: But is that the image of this country that you want out there — children in cages?
NIELSEN: The image that I want of this country is an immigration system that secures our borders and upholds our humanitarian ideals. Congress needs to fix it.
Q: Madam Secretary, I'd like to give you a chance to respond to Laura Bush. In an op-ed, she says this is cruel. She supports an application of the law. Even the current first lady, Melania Trump, has said we should be a nation of laws; we should do so “with heart.” Do you have anything you want to tell them? Do you believe they're misunderstanding the situation? Or do you believe there's any component of this policy which, as you've outlined, other administrations have done, but you're using in a way that is more intense and creates this separation issue?
NIELSEN: What my response would be is, is calling attention to this matter is important. This is a very serious issue that has resulted after years and years of Congress not taking action. So I would thank them both for their comments. I would thank them both for their concerns. I share their concerns. But Congress is the one that needs to fix this.
Q: And this policy is not, by your definition, in any way, cruel?
NIELSEN: It's not a policy. Our policy at DHS is to do what we're sworn to do, which is to enforce the law.
Q: Following up on Major's question there, Former first lady Laura Bush compared this to Japanese internment during World War II — one of the darkest days in the nation's history. Do you believe that the effect of this policy — so not the law — but the effect of it on separating children from families in those specific instances is moral, is ethical, is American?
NIELSEN: What I believe is that we should exercise our democratic rights as Americans and fix the problem. It's a problem; let's fix it.
Q: How is this not child abuse?
NIELSEN: Which? Be more specific, please. Enforcing the law?
Q: The images that Cecilia was talking about, and the sounds that we've seen from these big box stores — the Walmarts, the other stores — when you see this, how is this not specifically child abuse for these innocent children who are indeed being separated from their parents?
NIELSEN: So I want to be clear on a couple other things. The vast majority — vast, vast majority — of children who are in the care of HHS right now — 10,000 of the 12,000 — were sent here alone by their parents. That's when they were separated. So somehow, we've conflated everything.
But there's two separate issues. 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. We give them education. We give them medical care. There's videos; there's TVs. I've visited the detention centers myself. That would be my answer to that question.
Q: If I could follow up, though. For the hundreds that are not included in there — you said 10,000 — but for the hundreds that we have seen — perhaps up to 2,000 — are there any examples of child abuse, do you believe? And how could this not be child abuse for the people who are taken from their parents? Not the ones who are sent here, with their parents' blessing, with a smuggler, but the people who are taken from their parents?
NIELSEN: Unfortunately, I am not in any position to deal with hearsay stories. If someone has a specific allegation, as I always do when I testify, I ask that they provide that information to the Department of Homeland Security. We will look into it. Of course, we do not want any situation where a child is not completely adequately taken care o
Q: A couple of questions. One, why is the government only releasing images of the boys who are being held? Where are the girls? Where are the young toddlers?
NIELSEN: I don't know. I am not familiar with those particular images.
Q: You don't know where they are? Do you know where the girls are? Do you know where the young toddlers are?
NIELSEN: We have children in DHS care — both. But as you know, most of the children, after 72 hours, are transferred to HHS. So I don't know what pictures you're referencing, but I'd have to refer you to HHS.
Q: We've seen images of boys, but we just haven't seen any of the girls or any of the young toddlers. And you're saying that they are being well cared for. So how can you make that claim if you don't know where they are?
NIELSEN: It's not that I don't know where they are. I'm saying that the vast majority are held by Health and Human Services. We transfer them after 72 hours. I don't know what pictures you're speaking about, but perhaps there are —
Q: The pictures have been released to public; they've been aired all over national television.
NIELSEN: Okay. By DHS? Or by HHS?
Q: By DHS.
NIELSEN: Okay. So let's find out from HHS. I don't think there's anything other than (inaudible) pictures.
Q: They were released by your department. I mean, they've been aired all over national television throughout the day — the kids who are being held in the cages. We've only seen the boys.
NIELSEN: I will look into that. I'm not aware that there is another picture.
Q: Secretary, let me just follow up very quickly, because you continue to insist that this is something that Congress can change —
Q: — and yet this is something that was enacted after the attorney general announced the zero-tolerance policy. This never happened before he announced the zero-tolerance policy.
NIELSEN: That's actually not true. So the last administration —
Q: Well, we've never seen this under previous administrations.
NIELSEN: — the Obama administration, the Bush administration all separated families at the —
Q: We didn't see kids separated from their parents.
NIELSEN: They absolutely did. They did — their rate was less than ours, but they absolutely did do this. This is not new.
Q: There were unaccompanied minors, there's no doubt about that. But this —
NIELSEN: They separated families.
Q: — separating kids at this rate from their parents is something new and specific to this administration once the attorney general announced the zero-tolerance policy. So why doesn't the president pick up the phone and change the policy? He said he hates it.
NIELSEN: I think what the president is trying to do is find a long-term fix. So why don't we have Congress changes the laws to change —
NIELSEN: No. Congress could fix this tomorrow.
Yes. I think you were next, right?
Q: Yeah. Madam Secretary, President Trump has had a lot to say the last few days about immigration, but he's offered no compassion to the families that are being separated at the border. Do you know why that is? And why won't he simply pause your department's enforcement of this administration policy until Congress reaches that long-term fix so that these families can be reunited?
NIELSEN: He has been attempting to work with Congress since he's been in office. He's made it very clear that we will enforce the laws of the United States as long as this administration is here. As part of that, he has continually reached out to Congress to fix this. And I think what you've seen him do in the last few days is that: is continue to tell Congress, “Please work with us.” The system is broken. The only people that benefit from the system right now are the smugglers, the traffickers, those who are pedaling drugs, and terrorists. So let's fix the system.
Q: That didn't answer the question. And does he feel any compassion for the families that are being separated? He has talked about the parents being possible criminals. He has blamed it on Democrats. He has offered no words of compassion.
NIELSEN: I think he has said in tweets that he would like Congress to act to end the underlying laws that require the separation.
Q: Madam Secretary, it seemed like a couple days ago, both the President and in your tweets, that the main posture or point was to say that this is not the administration's policy. But it seems like, in the last couple — well, today — that the message is a little different; is to say, well, this is our policy, but it's our policy because either we believe it's a deterrent or we don’t believe we have the resources to move families entirely.
And I'm just wondering — I want to make sure we get the reporting right — which of those is the most precise way to describe how the administration feels? And given the blowback by a number of Republicans as well as Democrats, are you considering rethinking this based on feedback? Or is this the administration's position going forward — period, paragraph?
NIELSEN: The laws prohibit us from detaining families while they go through prosecution for illegally entering the border, and while they go through prosecutions for immigration proceedings. If we close the loopholes, we can keep the families together, which is what they did in the last administration until a court ruled that we can no longer do that. After 20 days, we have to release both unaccompanied children and accompanied children — which means that we cannot detain families together. The only option is to not enforce the law at all.
Q: Okay, so going back to these two questions from Kristen and Margaret, you said that you want Congress to close some loopholes. With that, you also said that you want to make this work. Now, are these kids being used as pawns for a wall? Many people are asking that. And Democrats are saying this is your discretion and there is no law that says that this White House can separate parents from their children.
NIELSEN: The kids are being used by pawns by the smugglers and the traffickers. Again, let's just pause to think about this statistic: 314 percent increase in adults showing up with kids that are not a family unit. Those are traffickers, those are smugglers. That is MS-13. Those are criminals and those are abusers.
Q: When did —
Q: Just let her finish.
NIELSEN: So — thank you. All I'm trying to say is, closing that loophole will enable us to detain families together throughout the proceeding as they've done in previous administration
Q: Madam Secretary. Madam Secretary, can you definitively say, are the children being used as pawns against --- for a wall. Yes or no? Can you say yes or no to that?
NIELSEN: The children are not being used as a pawn. We are trying to protect the children, which is why I'm asking Congress to act.
Q: (Inaudible) as the legal framework for the decisions that your administration has made. What we're seeing — the pictures, the audio, the stories — are they an intended consequence of the administration's decision-making or an unintended consequence?
NIELSEN: I think that they reflect the focus of those who post such pictures and narratives. The narratives we don't see are the narratives of the crime, of the opioids, of the smugglers, of people who are killed by gang members, of American children who are recruited, and then, when they lose the drugs, they're tased and beaten.
So we don't have a balanced view of what's happening. But what's happening at the border is the border is being overrun by those who have no right to cross it. As I said before, if you're seeking asylum, go to a port of entry. You do not need to break the law of the United States to seek asylum.
Q: People are being turned away from ports of entry, Madam Secretary.
NIELSEN: That actually is incorrect. We have limited resources. We have multiple missions at CBP. And what we do is, based on the very high standards we have, if we do not have enough bed space, if we do not have enough medical personnel on staff, if we do have enough caretakers on staff, then we will tell people that come to the border they need to come back. We are not turning them away. We are saying: We want to take care of you in the right way; right now, we do not have the resources at this particular moment in time. Come back.
Q: Thank you very much. Are you intending for this to play out as it is playing out? Are you intending for parents to be separated from their children? Are you intending to send a message?
NIELSEN: I find that offensive. No. Because why would I ever create a policy that purposely does that?
Q: Perhaps as a deterrent.
Q: AG Sessions says it was a deterrent.
NIELSEN: The way that it works —
Q: The Attorney General said it was a deterrent.
NIELSEN: That's not the question that you asked me.
But the answer is, it's 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. It's not an answer. The answer is to fix the laws.
Q: Will the administration refrain from its current policy if Congress were to pass something that's close to what you want? Or will it continue to require the separation of parents from their children until the President gets exactly what he wants?
NIELSEN: If Congress closes the loopholes, some of which — many of which are closed in the two bills that we hope are taken up this week by the House, then they close the loopholes and the families will stay together throughout the proceedings.