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Kirstjen Nielsen’s Cruel Legacy: Outgoing DHS Secretary Proudly Separated Families & Caged Children

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Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has been forced out of her role at the helm of President Trump’s immigration policy after reportedly resisting a move by the president to revive his family separation policy at the U.S. border. We look at Nielsen’s legacy with Renée Feltz, a Democracy Now! correspondent and producer who has long reported on the criminalization of immigrants, family detention and the business of detention. Nielsen oversaw Trump’s “zero tolerance” family separation policy last year and came under fire by Democrats for lying to Congress about the policy, as well as for withholding information on children who died in U.S. custody. At least two children died under Nielsen’s leadership: 8-year-old Felipe Alonzo Gómez and 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquín.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was forced out after reportedly resisting a move by Trump to revive his family separation policy at the U.S. border, but Nielsen oversaw Trump’s “zero tolerance” family separation policy, as you’re saying, last year, coming under fire from Democrats for lying to Congress, as well as for withholding information on children who died in U.S. custody. At least two children died under Nielsen’s leadership: 8-year-old Felipe Alonzo Gómez and 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquín, both in New Mexico. This is Nielsen speaking last year about the conditions of detained migrant children.

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: It is important to note that these minors are very well taken care of. Don’t believe the press. They are very well taken care of. … We operate according to some of the highest standards in the country. We provide food, medical, education and all needs that the child requests.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democratic Congressmember Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey questioning Nielsen about the conditions children are held in, during a hearing last month.

REP. BONNIE WATSON COLEMAN: What does a chain-link fence enclosed into a chamber on a concrete floor represent to you? Is that a cage?

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: It’s a detention space, ma’am, that you know has existed for decades.

REP. BONNIE WATSON COLEMAN: Does it differ from the cages you put your dogs in when you let them stay outside? Is it—is it different?

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Yes.

REP. BONNIE WATSON COLEMAN: In what sense?

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: It’s larger. It has facilities. It provides room to sit, to stand, to lay down.

REP. BONNIE WATSON COLEMAN: So did my dog’s cage.

AMY GOODMAN: “So did my dog’s cage,” said the congressmember in response to Kirstjen Nielsen. And this is the woman that President Trump says is not tough enough on policy. We’re joined by, as well as Erika Andiola, Democracy Now! correspondent and producer Renée Feltz, long reported on the criminalization of immigrants, family detention and the business of detention. Renée?

RENÉE FELTZ: You know, Amy, you and I took the Democracy Now! team to the border during this family separation crisis. And that was not long after Kirstjen Nielsen denied that family separation was happening. Remember, she at first said that “zero tolerance” doesn’t mean that we’re taking parents away from their children. Interestingly, that was later proven to be a lie, when there was a release of a DHS memo that she had signed off on. Who else signed off on that? The new person who’s taking her place, Customs and Border Protection head Kevin McAleenan. He was signed on that memo, as well. We—

AMY GOODMAN: And, by the way, in order for Trump to put him there—

RENÉE FELTZ: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —he has to get rid of Claire Grady, who’s in between, who would be the number two. And it’s not—well, we’ll see if she’s fired, because that is the order of succession.

RENÉE FELTZ: He wants to get as quickly as he can to a yes-person who will help him carry out Stephen Miller’s policy. Stephen Miller is lurking in the background as an adviser.

I think it’s important to note that Kirstjen Nielsen opened the gates for family separation to happen. She was a yes-person for Trump herself, even though she’s being portrayed as someone who occasionally said no to Trump.

Also, family separation continues to happen right now, the administration is acknowledging, and they say that sometimes they’re separating children who come with their parents for their own safety. You know, Amy, there was a recording of a young girl who was separated from her mother, that was shared with ProPublica. It was wrenching to listen to. You can hear the child sobbing. And anyone who’s heard that will never forget what Kirstjen Nielsen’s legacy is about.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I think we have that ProPublica audio from inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, where children were between the ages of 4 and 10 and are heard crying “Mama” and “Papi” after being separated from their parents. This is the audio.

CHILD: [crying] Papi! Papi! Papi! Papi!

BORDER PATROL AGENT: [translated] Well, we have an orchestra here, right? What we’re missing is a conductor.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a border agent saying that over.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Renée—yeah, that was a border agent, yes.

RENÉE FELTZ: Incredible. Incredible to see that people carried out this policy, to hear it carried out. Kirstjen Nielsen was one of those people. She helped President Trump. You know, it’s interesting. We’ve seen The New York Times, yesterday they had an editorial they ran called “Who Is Left to Say No to Trump?” And it implies that Kirstjen Nielsen said no. And I really—I disagree with that characterization. I think she helped pave the way for a lot of these policies, that are continuing.

We see her replacement now wants to carry out what he calls “binary choice,” sort of like Sophie’s choice. These parents who travel all the way north with their children to bring them to safety in America are told, “You have a choice. You can agree to let us take your child while we detain you, while you seek asylum, or you can detain the child with you.” And we’ve heard about the horrible conditions in these facilities. So, that’s kind of what she opened the gates for. And not only—

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the people who say no?

RENÉE FELTZ: Well, there’s a lot of people saying no. And I’m glad you brought that up, Amy, because I think there’s people saying no in the courts, and there’s people saying no at the local level. In the courts, we just saw two huge victories. Kirstjen Nielsen, one of her proud achievements as the DHS secretary was to work with Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser Jared Kushner on getting Mexico to agree to hold people while they were seeking asylum, instead of letting them stay in the U.S. We saw a judge overturn that yesterday, or put a hold on that—a major victory. On Friday, we saw another major victory, where people who are seeking asylum and have a credible fear granted to them can now have a bond hearing and seek their release before a judge within seven days, instead of being indefinitely detained. So we’re seeing pushback on that level.

In California, they passed a state law where they limited the expansion of immigrant detention centers. And many of these facilities—and I wanted to bring this up real quick because many of these facilities are now having their contracts ended with the cities. For example, Adelanto, California, ended their contract with the second-largest facility holding immigrants in California, run by GEO Group. That contract could now come back as a contract just between ICE and GEO Group. And so, while people are saying there is success in California pushing back, we could actually see an end run with an increase in family detention there.

One other quick thing: We’re seeing cities reject permits for these facilities that hold children in detention. We saw it in Houston, and just this week, I believe yesterday, we saw it in Philadelphia.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Renée, you mentioned Sophie’s choice, and so we’re going to bring in the uncle of the man who is now the point person on immigration, even further consolidated, Stephen Miller. Renée Feltz and Erika Andiola, please stay with us. This is Democracy Now! Back in 30 seconds.

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