MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The Department of Homeland Security is defending the Trump administration's tough stance on immigration. Kirstjen Nielsen says her agency is simply enforcing laws already on the books, and she is responding to critics who say the administration's actions are harsh and mean-spirited.
KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: The pushback in terms of us enforcing the law is inappropriate and unacceptable. If somebody wants a different law, they should go to Congress and get a different law passed. But we took an oath, and we will uphold the laws of this country.
KELLY: Secretary Nielsen presides over a massive agency with a massive mandate, including preventing terrorism, responding to natural disasters and enforcing immigration laws. Well, NPR's John Burnett, who covers immigration, sat down for an interview today with Secretary Nielsen. And he is now here in our studio in Washington to tell us about it. Hey there, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So this took place at her office at the Department of Homeland Security. Set the scene for us here.
BURNETT: Right. It was in a conference room at a table. There was a couple of press people there, and she sat and took my questions. I only had 15 minutes, and she very forcefully answered all of them.
KELLY: Give us the briefest portrait of who she is because for a cabinet secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen is not so familiar to a lot of Americans.
BURNETT: She has been in the shadow, in some ways, of who she considered her mentor, General John Kelly. Now, she's a 45-year-old lawyer, a national security expert who served in the George W. Bush administration and then was a top aide to Kelly both when he was head of Homeland Security and then when he went to the White House as chief of staff. And so she was confirmed as DHS secretary in her own right late last year.
KELLY: Now, she has been in the news just this week because of this announcement - this controversial announcement that immigration agents will separate families who crossed the border illegally, even families who are crossing the border to try to seek asylum.
BURNETT: Right, but she wanted to clarify - and I think this was important - that families who present themselves at ports of entry can ask for asylum. They'll receive a credible fair interview, and they will not necessarily be arrested on the spot and separated. It's the families that cross the border illegally - that maybe take a raft across the Rio Grande. They'll be arrested, prosecuted, and they'll separate the parents from the children.
KELLY: And did you ask her, is this meant to be a deterrent specifically for families leaving Central America?
BURNETT: Well, I even asked her about a quote that I had read in The New Yorker magazine that taking children from their parents is a form of state terror.
NIELSEN: What it's meant to do is do our jobs. I mean, that would be like saying that when people commit crimes in this country and they're put in jail and separated from their family, that somehow that's terror. In the United States, we call that law enforcement. We call that protecting our communities and our children. That's what we're doing.
BURNETT: But separating families isn't - it's an extreme measure.
NIELSEN: Well, it's not. Again, we do it every day in every part of the country. If you have a family and you commit a crime, the police do not not put you in jail because you have a family. They prosecute you, and they incarcerate you. Illegal aliens should not get just different rights because they happen to be illegal aliens.
BURNETT: So, Mary Louise, I wanted to put a human face on DHS enforcement policies, and there's this one particular case that's got loads of attention. A woman and her 6-year-old daughter fled the Democratic Republic of Congo and showed up at the Tijuana-San Diego Port of Entry asking for asylum last November.
KELLY: Oh, this is the case from last fall, last November.
BURNETT: Right. Federal agents separated them. They took the little girl and sent her to Chicago where she stayed in a government-contracted youth shelter. And they locked the mother up in detention for four months in San Diego. They were finally reunited after a lawsuit and a big public outcry. And I asked Secretary Nielsen about that case.
Do you wish that you all had handled that case differently?
NIELSEN: I think we can always do better. We're learning a lot from it. As you know, it's an active lawsuit, so unfortunately I can't get into all the things we're doing to improve the system. But absolutely, it's not our intent to separate people one day longer than is necessary to prove that there is in fact a custodial relationship.
KELLY: Would she get, John, at all into what DHS is going to do under her leadership? Is the plan here to arrest everybody in the country who's unauthorized? That would be - what? - something like 11 million people.
BURNETT: Right. I asked her that, and this is what she said.
NIELSEN: I don't think anyone would pretend that's possible. So what we are doing is we prioritize. We will deport as many as resources allow. We do that in a structured, targeted way. We go after this from a policy position that we feel it's a threat to the United States and our community. So as you know, we focus on the criminal element, for example, but we do not have the current resources today to deport all 11 million, for example, in the next year.
KELLY: John, let me turn you to another item I know is on your list to ask Secretary Nielsen about. This is TPS, temporary protected status. It's been in the news a lot of late. TPS allows immigrants to stay in the U.S. - immigrants from certain countries that maybe have been struck by natural disaster or by war.
BURNETT: Right. And so in recent months, DHS has cancelled temporary protected status for some 400,000 immigrants from Central America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. Her answer was pretty simple. She said U.S. law required her to take that action. Let's listen.
NIELSEN: The statute is very clear. If the conditions that originated from the designating event no longer exist, the statute says the secretary shall terminate. To pretend that conditions continue to exist from a hurricane 20 years ago is a fiction. Does that mean there isn't difficulty in that country - no. Does that mean we shouldn't take care of TPS - no. But does that mean that I have any authority to continue to grant them temporary status? It does not.
BURNETT: But there was some discretion. I mean, you could - some of these have gone on, you know, for 15-plus years. But you all decided to draw a line in your tenure.
NIELSEN: Yeah, we decided to enforce the law. We don't make immigration law. Congress should pass a law to give permanent status to those who've had temporary protective status. I am not going to bow to political pressure, however, to break the law to do Congress's job. They need to do it.
KELLY: It's interesting, John, to hear how the secretary is framing this because she has faced criticism that senior White House officials such as chief of staff John Kelly and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller are driving a hard-line agenda at her department. Did you ask her about that pressure on her department? What'd she say?
BURNETT: Yep, I asked her directly, is the Homeland Security Department independent from the Trump White House?
NIELSEN: Well, it is. We have operational control. So we have the men and women who execute the laws each day. What we do, though, is - this takes a partnership. So one of the roles of the White House is to help coordinate the interagency, and General Kelly and Stephen Miller help us do that.
KELLY: So, John, what's your takeaway from having sat down with her and asked her about the criticism her department is coming under from a lot of quarters?
BURNETT: Secretary Nielsen is not backing down one inch from this harsh criticism of her agency's enforcement actions. DHS is going to fix what she says is a broken immigration system, and that's exactly what the Trump administration wants her to do.
KELLY: John Burnett, thank you.
BURNETT: It's a pleasure.
KELLY: John Burnett reporting there on his sit-down interview today with the secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen.
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