WASHINGTON — Just last month, Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, drafted a resignation letter after being berated by President Trump over what he saw as her tepid support for his tough immigration policies, according to two people familiar with the episode. She never sent it.
This week, confronted by images of children in cages after they had been separated from their families at the Southwest border, Ms. Nielsen served as a shield for the Trump administration against global criticism for its hard-line attempts to discourage illegal immigration.
Smiling as she took the White House lectern on Monday, Ms. Nielsen read from a script defending Mr. Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, which has separated 2,300 children from their parents yet failed to reduce the number of families trying to cross the border. She falsely said that Mr. Trump’s family separation strategy was not administration policy, wrongly insisting it was the result of legal “loopholes” that only Congress can fix.
Asked whether images of young children packed into detention centers and an audiotape of them keening for their parents were intended or unintended consequences of the administration’s decision making, Ms. Nielsen replied: “They reflect the focus of those who post such pictures and narratives. The narratives we don’t see are the narratives of the crime.”
Asked “how is this not child abuse,” she responded coolly, “Be more specific, please.”
The fallout has been swift. A growing number of congressional Democrats are calling for Ms. Nielsen’s resignation, and Republicans moved to stanch the political bleeding. The governors of Maryland and Virginia withdrew National Guard troops from the southern border. The powerful Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce slammed the practice of tearing migrant families apart.
“Surely a nation as big, generous and compassionate as the United States can find a way to prevent separating children from their parents at the border,” Thomas J. Donohue, the chamber’s chief executive, said in a statement on Tuesday.
On Tuesday night, the controversy followed Ms. Nielsen to dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, where an organized group of protesters confronted her about the family separations, shouting, “Shame, shame, shame.”
During his first year in office, the president delighted in boasting that illegal crossings at the border with Mexico had declined drastically on his watch. But so far in 2018, illegal crossings have surged, with more than 50,000 migrants entering the United States each month in March, April and May.
The reasons for the increase in border traffic are many, including the cyclical nature of migration and a booming American economy. But Mr. Trump has become increasingly enraged and focused on a crackdown, heaping new pressure upon Ms. Nielsen.
Ms. Nielsen’s comments to reporters at the White House on Monday appeared to appease Mr. Trump, who on Tuesday night said she “did a fabulous job.”
“We want ‘heart’ and security in America!” the president wrote in a Twitter post.
The Department of Homeland Security, which has a budget of more than $40 billion and a staff of more than 240,000, is a sprawling amalgam created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that cobbled together 22 government agencies. The department is responsible for everything from protecting the nation from cyberattacks to responding to natural disasters.
The steps taken once families are apprehended by agents at the United States-Mexico border, and how adults and children are processed differently.
But as the president rails about illegal immigration, Ms. Nielsen’s attention has been increasingly drawn to the department’s border security role.
“Your priority, once you accept the job, is to echo the president’s priorities. She has done that,” said Tom Ridge, the first homeland security secretary, who said Ms. Nielsen has often sought out his advice. “But this president, with some of the things he sometimes does and says, has made her job harder.”
At 46, Ms. Nielsen is the youngest person to lead the sprawling agency, and an unlikely choice for the job. She was a staff member at the agency before leading it, helping to set up the Transportation Security Administration, now an agency within homeland security, after the Sept. 11 attacks. She was later tapped to be a special assistant to President George W. Bush, working on the White House Homeland Security Council.
After Mr. Trump’s surprise election victory, Ms. Nielsen volunteered for his transition team and helped prepare John F. Kelly, then the president-elect’s nominee for homeland security secretary, for his confirmation hearings. Mr. Kelly named Ms. Nielsen his chief of staff, and the two have moved in tandem through the Trump administration, becoming personal friends in the process.
When Mr. Trump named Mr. Kelly his White House chief of staff last July, Ms. Nielsen became his deputy, helping to enforce new rules on access to the president. Mr. Kelly then backed Ms. Nielsen to succeed him at the Homeland Security Department, though both Democrats and anti-immigration groups criticized her lack of experience.
During her confirmation hearings, Ms. Nielsen sidestepped questions about Mr. Trump’s immigration policy, but acknowledged that his pledge to build a wall along the entire Southwest border was unrealistic. “There is no need for a wall from sea to shining sea,” she told the Senate Homeland Security Committee. She was confirmed by the Senate with bipartisan support.
During her first cabinet meeting as homeland security secretary in December, Mr. Trump told the group, “I sure hope Kirstjen’s tough enough,” according to a report in Politico.
In a recent interview, Ms. Nielsen said she was quietly trying to put her own stamp on the agency, focusing on beefing up the cybersecurity division and doing a critical assessment of other programs at the department.
“It’s time we took a look at what works and what might work better,” she said.
Ms. Nielsen has also been raising her visibility as an advocate for Mr. Trump’s immigration policies. During whirlwind trips to the border, and in speeches and testimony on Capitol Hill, she forcefully lobbied Congress for Mr. Trump’s border wall. In April, touring Arizona’s border with Mexico, she called illegal crossings a “crisis” and criticized a Supreme Court ruling curtailing her department’s ability to deport legal immigrants convicted of certain crimes.
She defended the department’s withdrawal of Temporary Protected Status for nearly 300,000 Hondurans, Salvadorans and Haitians, many with American-born children, who were granted haven in the United States after natural disasters and civil unrest. The decisions prompted a diplomatic outcry.
“The statute is very clear,” she said in an interview with NPR in May. “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.”
In February, after the administration began pulling back the temporary protections, the department’s assistant secretary for international engagement in the office of strategy, policy and plans decided to resign. The official, James D. Nealon, a former United States ambassador to Honduras, had reportedly also clashed with the White House over immigration policy.
In the interview, Ms. Nielsen insisted she was simply doing her job. “It’s not partisan,” she said. “We should all care about securing our borders and our country. We’re talking about stopping criminals, criminal gangs and terrorist suspects. We need to know who is trying to come into the country.”
Over her six months in office, Ms. Nielsen has tried to straddle the line on immigration policy, between critics on the left who wanted her to be a voice of conscience and those on the right who accused her of being soft on illegal immigrants.
“Under the best circumstances, D.H.S. is a hard place to run,” said Jay Ahren, a former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection during the administration of President George W. Bush. “No single person can run an organization of that size without a strong team.”
Even before her Monday briefing, Ms. Nielsen had become a political lightning rod. Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and the ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee, accused Ms. Nielsen of politicizing the department. “I think she has been distracted by overthinking how well something is going to be received at the White House,” he said.
In the White House, Ms. Nielsen’s political fortunes have hewed closely to those of Mr. Kelly. A department spokesman disputed that she drafted a resignation letter last month and described as “false” reports that she had been close to resigning.
On Monday, Mr. Kelly reportedly urged Ms. Nielsen not to participate in the White House briefing. She went anyway.
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