Elected officials from Massachusetts are calling out President Donald Trump’s top Homeland Security official for her defense of the administration’s decision to separate immigrant children from their families at the border.
The policy has come under intense criticism from across the ideological spectrum, from Sen. Bernie Sanders to former First Lady Laura Bush to House Speaker Paul Ryan. However, Kirstjen Nielsen, Trump’s Department of Homeland Security secretary, says the administration has no such policy.
“We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period,” Nielsen tweeted Sunday night.
We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.
— Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen (@SecNielsen) June 17, 2018
Rep. Joe Kennedy, who traveled to the United States-Mexico border in Texas on Sunday and participated in a protest at a facility where families were being forcibly separated, said Nielsen’s statement didn’t align with what he heard from local officials.
“Either own it or change it,” Kennedy tweeted Sunday. “Scratch that — just change it.”
If this isn’t the White House policy, please tell the officials who I spoke with in Tornillo today who believe it is. Either own it or change it. Scratch that – just change it. #KeepFamiliesTogether https://t.co/GxyzG1QrmZ
— Rep. Joe Kennedy III (@RepJoeKennedy) June 17, 2018
Kennedy’s fellow Massachusetts congressional delegation members were a bit more blunt.
“This is a lie,” Sen. Ed Markey tweeted late Sunday night in a response to Nielsen, adding that “you are directly responsible for unimaginable amounts of misery.”
This is a lie. There is no law. There is no court mandate. This is a policy made solely by this administration, and you can stop it right now. And every second you don’t you are directly responsible for unimaginable amounts of misery. Period. https://t.co/nf0lF9VEoO
— Ed Markey (@SenMarkey) June 18, 2018
“This is a lie. Period,” Rep. Katherine Clark, also responding to Nielsen, echoed Monday morning.
This is a lie. Period. https://t.co/KUUQyyU2kF
— Katherine Clark (@RepKClark) June 18, 2018
According to her own department’s figures, at least 2,000 children have been separated from their guardians since mid-April as the administration ramped up enforcement of a new “zero-tolerance policy” on illegal border crossings. According to this policy, the Department of Homeland Security will refer “100 percent of illegal Southwest Border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution.”
While Nielsen is technically correct — there’s no statute explicitly calling for families to be forcibly separated — it has been the practical and direct consequence of this zero-tolerance policy. As an Associated Press fact-check recently explained:
Administration officials are quick to note that Sessions’ policy makes no mention of separating families. That is correct. But under U.S. protocol, if parents are jailed, their children are separated from them because the children aren’t charged with a crime.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions even acknowledged that children would be separated from their guardians when he announced the new policy last month.
“If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you,” Sessions said at the time. “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”
At a conference Monday morning, Nielsen doubled down and said her department is just “enforcing the laws passed by Congress” and would “not apologize for doing our job.” She challenged members of Congress to pass legislation if they want to see a change, even though the increase in forced family separations was set in motion by an executive action implemented by the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security.
The United Nations office for human rights has condemned the forced separations as an “arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life,” and “a serious violation of the rights of the child,” and has called on the United States to “immediately halt” the practice.