Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen pushed back Monday at the growing condemnation of her agency’s practice of separating migrant families at the border, telling a gathering of law enforcement officers, “We will not apologize for the job we do.”
In a speech at the meeting of National Sheriffs’ Association in New Orleans, Nielsen drew rousing applause when she directed her remarks at “a selected few in the media, Congress and the advocacy community” whom she accused of mischaracterizing the Trump administration’s border crackdown.
“This department will no longer stand by and watch you attack law enforcement for enforcing the laws passed by Congress,” Nielsen said. “We will not apologize for the job we do, or the job law enforcement does, or the job the American people expect us to do.”
Outrage at the administration’s new “zero tolerance” crackdown at the border reached a new peak over the weekend, as protesters rallied outside a tent camp for migrant children in El Paso, and several prominent Republicans joined Democrats in denouncing the policy as callous and cruel.
Nielsen has been under pressure in recent months from President Trump, who has singled her out for blame as arrests along the Mexico border have climbed to their highest point since Trump took office.
Releasing parents who bring children across the border would be tantamount to giving them “a get out of jail free card,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen has faced doubts from immigration hard-liners who question whether she is sufficiently committed to the administration’s approach, which threatens criminal prosecution for anyone who crosses the border illegally. Homeland Security has separated more than 2,000 children from their parents since April 19, placing them in shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Former first lady Laura Bush joined calls for the Trump administration to end the practice in an op-ed on Sunday, saying it “breaks my heart.”
“I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel,” she said. “It is immoral.”
Some of the most intense outrage at the measures has followed instances of parents deported to Central America without their children or spending weeks unable to locate their sons and daughters. In other instances, pediatricians and child advocates have reported seeing toddlers crying inconsolably for their mothers at shelters where staff are prohibited from physically comforting them.
The administration has defended its practice of keeping the children in government care while it conducts extensive background checks on those seeking to take custody of the children, including their parents.
Nielsen said the government has detected hundreds of cases of fraud among migrants traveling with children who are not their own.
Trump on Twitter Monday echoed that point. “Children are being used by some of the worst criminals on earth as a means to enter our country,” he wrote. “Has anyone been looking at the Crime taking place south of the border. It is historic, with some countries the most dangerous places in the world. Not going to happen in the U.S.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions also defended the measures Monday as a necessary deterrent to counter a surge in adults bringing children with them across the border once “word got out” that they could be released.
“Why wouldn’t you bring children with you if you knew you would be released and not prosecuted?” Sessions said.
“We do not want to separate children from their parents,” Sessions said, but he stressed that the administration has a policy of prosecuting adults who enter the country illegally.
“President Trump has said this lawlessness cannot continue,” he said.
John Wagner contributed to this report.