By Josh Leach on April 9, 2019
Kirstjen Nielsen has resigned as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), following repeated clashes with the President. She leaves behind a legacy of moral cowardice and complicity with grave human rights abuses, having implemented some of the most unjust policies of the Trump administration. Meanwhile, her departure creates an opening for still worse possibilities. In these moments, we remember that an alternative future is still possible.
After assuming DHS leadership in December 2017, Nielsen continued the administration’s pattern of canceling Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for immigrants who have fled dangerous conditions in their home countries. Specifically, Nielsen moved to end TPS for nationals of Honduras, Nepal, and El Salvador, potentially stripping nearly 300,000 long-term U.S. residents of legal status. Federal courts have since put these cancellations on hold, citing evidence they were motivated by racism.
More recently, Nielsen issued new migration protocols that force some asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while they are screened for protection. During the program’s implementation, more than 600 Central Americans were turned away, placing them at risk from criminal networks in Mexico and the long reach of persecutors in their home countries. Like several of this administration’s policies, these protocols were recently blocked by a federal court for violating the legal rights of asylum-seekers.
Perhaps most notably, Nielsen will be remembered for her association with the administration’s family separation policy, which tore thousands of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. The human consequences of this policy are still being felt and are in many cases irrevocable. For instance, the administration recently declared it may take two years to fully reunite all of the separated families. So too, the separations fueled the dramatic spike in child detention that continues to this day.
The context of Nielsen’s departure also signals that even worse policies could be on the horizon. Though Nielsen was a willing accomplice in the policies described above, she also at times served as a check on the President, balking at orders that she considered blatantly unlawful. Reports indicate that it was her opposition to closing the U.S.-Mexico border and blocking all asylum-seekers that prompted the President to ask for her resignation. Trump’s stance again reveals a disturbing autocratic impulse and contempt for the rule of law.
One of Nielsen’s last acts as DHS Secretary was to reiterate the administration’s claim that U.S. asylum laws and the laws protecting unaccompanied children have “impeded” the Department’s border security objectives. These statements fundamentally misconstrue the nature of the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. While processing large numbers of asylum-seekers is an operational challenge, requiring a serious commitment of resources, it is not a crisis, because migration is not a threat; it is a benefit that strengthens our shared community.
Finally, asylum and human rights protections are not the source of humanitarian problems; they are a solution to them. In the years following World War II, the United Nations created international refugee law in order to give states a tool to respond to forced displacement in ways that honor the humanity of people in flight and uphold our obligations as members of a global community. Seeking to undo this legacy is a bankrupt approach – legally, morally, and logistically. Nielsen’s legacy has underlined this truth and her departure is a reminder of the need for a different approach to asylum.
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