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Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen Defends 'Zero Tolerance' Border Policy


Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is defending President Trump's zero-tolerance border policy. That's the policy, his attorney general publicly announced, to prosecute every person found crossing the border illegally - even people applying for asylum and even if it means taking their children away from them. This policy is under such widespread criticism that by last night Nielsen was denying there was any such policy at all. And then today she spoke at the National Sheriffs' Association annual conference.


KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: We are enforcing the laws passed by Congress. And we are doing all that we can in the executive branch to protect our communities.

INSKEEP: It is now time for Congress to fix our broken immigration system, she said. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has been listening to Nielsen. She's in our studios. Mara, good morning.


INSKEEP: How is Nielsen explaining that this is not a policy at all when Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, John Kelly, chief of staff, Stephen Miller, White House adviser, have all said, on the record in public, this is a deliberate policy to deter people from coming to the United States?

LIASSON: Right. Well, this is - Donald Trump has been saying, quite vociferously recently, that he has no choice but to do this. And as he tweeted this morning, it's the Democrats' fault for being weak on border security. This has become an extremely unpopular policy. And the administration doesn't want to take responsibility for it even though, as you said, all sorts of top officials have said, we're doing this on purpose to deter people from making this very dangerous journey. So here's Nielson explaining why she says they have the situation at the border.


NIELSEN: We cannot detain children with their parents. So we must either release both the parents and the children - this is the historic get-out-of-jail-free practice of the previous administration - or the adult and the minor will be separated as a result of prosecuting the adult. Those are the only two options. Surely, it is the beginning of the unraveling of democracy when the body who makes the laws - rather than changing them - asks the body who enforces the laws not to enforce the laws.

INSKEEP: Wow - so much to unpack there. First, she is responding to members of Congress, in both parties, who have said hold on. What are you doing here? You don't have to be doing this.

LIASSON: Right. Look. Prosecutors have a lot of discretion. You can prosecute the law in many different ways. The previous administrations, which the Trump people - including Kirstjen Nielsen - say gave immigrants a get-out-of-jail-free card. They decided that it was inhumane to separate families. So they set up different policies. This administration has had a zero-tolerance policy which says, anybody who comes illegally, we are going to prosecute every single one of them. And if they have minor children, they're going to be separated because we can't keep minors in an adult jail.

INSKEEP: Now, when she says there are only two options...

LIASSON: So it was their choice, yeah.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And when it's a choice of the administration and when we say that there - when she says there are only two options, that does not appear to be factually correct. Will Hurd, Republican member of Congress who represents the Texas border region, said on the program today there's another option. He called it alternative detention - some other way of keeping families together but under supervision until they can be deported or their cases can be heard. And maybe in some cases, they can stay. There are other alternatives here.

LIASSON: Right. And, you know, look. There were tremendous numbers of facilities built at the border that were empty when the immigration flow dropped. Maybe they could be used to house families together. The point is that this policy was put into place as a deterrent. Then it became a bargaining chip. And Stephen Miller has talked about this. OK, Democrats, you don't like us to separate families? Then come to the table and vote for our immigration plan, which includes - in addition to wall funding, which Democrats said that they'd give the president - it includes a 44 percent decrease in legal immigration, which the Democrats do not want to vote for.

INSKEEP: OK, so so much to discuss here and a lot of action coming up in Congress this week. That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks for coming by, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Mara Liasson
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.