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In Trump's America, Even Nielsen Wasn't Cruel Enough

We cannot allow Trump’s slippery slope into hell to distort our moral compasses

Kirstjen Nielsen is sworn in as the sixth secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in November 2017. (Jetta Disco / DHS)

Kirstjen Nielsen is sworn in as the sixth secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in November 2017. (Photo: Jetta Disco / DHS)

Kirstjen Nielsen’s cruelty toward immigrants over the past year was apparently not enough for President Donald Trump. Nielsen, the Department of Homeland Security secretary who resigned under pressure Monday after holding her position for just over a year, left behind a legacy stained by the forced separation of thousands of migrant families. Under her watch at least 2,654 children were removed from their parents’ care.

What’s worse, Nielsen refused to acknowledge the reality of what she had done. After protesters confronted her with cries of “shame” at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., she tweeted that she would “work tirelessly until our broken immigration system is fixed, our borders are secure and families can stay together,” as if circumstances beyond her control were forcing her to take children away from their loved ones and all she was interested in was helping immigrant families. She repeatedly denied that DHS was separating families, saying, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”

After an audiotape of a child crying for her parents was released to the public last summer, Nielsen claimed no knowledge of it. And when reporters asked her whether she wanted the U.S. to be known by images of kids in cages, she again shamelessly responded, “The image I want of this country is an immigration system that secures our border and upholds our humanitarian ideals.”

Earlier this year, she insisted to lawmakers that the chain link boxes used to hold immigrant children in border facilities were “not cages,” but instead were “areas of the border facility that are carved out for the safety and protection of those who remain there while they’re being processed.” And even after the president, whose vision she claimed to be fulfilling, threw her under the bus on Sunday, Nielsen refused to show any remorse or regret for carrying out his cruel agenda, saying instead, “I share the president’s goal of securing the border.” Rather than expressing even a hint of a “mea culpa” for the monstrous role she has played in enacting Trump’s cruel agenda, Nielsen has shown herself to be coldly up to the task, embracing the inhumanity with open arms.

While she was willing imprison kids for her president, it is now apparent that Nielsen was not willing to fall on her sword and flout immigration laws for him, which is likely why she was forced to resign. According to CNN, sources revealed that Trump was “ranting and raving, saying border security was his issue,” and demanded that Nielsen shut down the El Paso, Texas, port of entry. When she explained that was not possible, he demanded that the U.S. disallow refugees from entering to request asylum—in violation of asylum laws. Again, Nielsen refused—not necessarily because she wanted to (though it is abundantly clear how morally bankrupt she is) but perhaps because Trump wants to break our asylum laws, and she may have been unwilling to be his accomplice.

Apparently angry that migrants fleeing violence and insecurity from Central America continue to ask for asylum in the U.S., Trump is considering reinstating the disastrous family separation policy—a practice that Nielsen repeatedly insisted was not government policy and that Trump finally ended via executive order last year after a massive public outcry. CNN reported that in recent weeks, “The President wanted families separated even if they came in at a legal port of entry and were legal asylum seekers.” This goes beyond what Trump did last summer. “He just wants to separate families,” a senior administration official told CNN.

When asked this week if he would reinstate the policy, Trump initially denied it, saying, “We’re not looking to do that, no,” but went on to boast about the success of family separation as a deterrent to immigration. “Once you don’t have it, that’s why you see many more people coming. They’re coming like it’s a picnic because, ‘let’s go to Disneyland,’ ” he said.

If Nielsen’s role in the mass kidnapping of vulnerable children, her calculating lies and euphemistic defenses of Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda are the worst this country has witnessed in recent years, what’s coming next is likely a step beyond even her barbarity.

So, what is driving Trump’s latest anti-immigrant phase? One White House source told CBS that Nielsen’s departure “is a part of a massive DHS overhaul engineered and directed by top Trump adviser Stephen Miller.” Miller has developed a reputation for pushing a strongly white supremacist, nationalist and anti-immigrant agenda at the White House, all the more ironic because his ancestors benefited from asylum laws in order to emigrate to the U.S. in the early 1900s. After Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, also a beneficiary of asylum laws, rightly called Miller out for being a white nationalist, the president’s son Donald Jr. unabashedly accused her of “anti-Semitic bigotry“—because Miller is Jewish.

But Miller alone is not to blame for the current mess we’re in. Trump has shown his true racist colors so often that his virulent hatred of brown-skinned immigrants should no longer be in question. While Miller may supply Trump with a strategy of how best to slam the door shut on migrants, Trump well knows that his deeply loyal base is moved primarily by insecurity steeped in a fear of immigrants. He knows that the crueler he is to immigrants, the more assured his path to reelection is. He understands that even when he spews such lies as “The country is full,” his base nods along obediently. Even when his own business is found to rely on undocumented immigrants, his backers will be blind to his hypocrisy.

Over the past two years, much of the president’s anti-immigrant policy has faced opposition from the public and the courts. This means that Trump is likely to dig in his heels ever harder and do everything in his power to steamroll over the Constitution until he’s stopped. If Nielsen’s role in the mass kidnapping of vulnerable children, her calculating lies and euphemistic defenses of Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda are the worst this country has witnessed in recent years, what’s coming next is likely a step beyond even her barbarity.

Still, there are such things as laws, and even Trump’s fascistic destruction of norms, ethical boundaries and laws cannot mow down all checks and balances. A federal judge on Monday blocked Trump’s policy of forcing asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while they apply. Judge Jon S. Tigar of San Francisco wrote, “Whatever the scope of the President’s authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden.”

More importantly, his own party was perfectly happy with Nielsen’s savagery and seems to have an appetite to do her one better. Top ranking Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley on Monday warned the White House not to fire more DHS agency heads. In an interview with The Washington Post, Grassley said he was, “very, very concerned” about rumors that Lee Francis Cissna, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, would be the next to be fired. He told the paper, “One, those are good public servants. … Secondly, besides the personal connection I have with them and the qualifications they have, they are the intellectual basis for what the president wants to accomplish in immigration.” In other words, why isn’t Trump satisfied with Nielsen’s brutality, wonders Grassley?

Still, the purge has continued with Trump firing the head of the Secret Service (perhaps in retaliation for their tiff with Mar-a-Lago staff?) and the announced resignation of DHS’ acting Deputy Secretary, Claire Grady. Eventually, Trump will find shills willing to carry out his nefarious fantasy of barring all immigrants from the nation. When that happens, let us not look back on Nielsen’s tenure with nostalgia. We cannot allow Trump’s slippery slope into hell to distort our moral compasses.

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Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku) and Pacifica stations KPFK, KPFA, and affiliates. She is the former founder, host and producer of KPFK Pacifica’s popular morning drive-time program “Uprising." She is also the co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit solidarity organization that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of RAWA. She is the author, with James Ingalls, of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence" (2006).

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