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Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 21, 2019

So long as we’re talking about a much more muscular Democratic House lowering its investigative and oversight boom on the Trump administration, I’d like to nominate serious questioning of Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, whose past testimony has never led to the favored word these day — transparency.

The emergence of a Homeland Security internal auditlast week that said that thousands more migrant children had been separated from their families, dating back to a time before the announcement of an official policy to do so, underscores that Nielsen has been less than forthcoming with Congress.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore, said on Friday that theFBIshouldopen a perjury investigation into Nielsen’s sworn remarksto Congress about family separation policy. Merkley had released a previously undisclosed memo from the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department in 2017 that outlined policy options to deal with illegal immigration at the border. The second item on the list is a policy to “separate family units.” The memo also notes that an upshot of such policies will be the “substantial deterrent effect.”

Nielsen has long denied there was a policy to separate families; during testimony in front of Congress in December, she said, “We’ve never had a policy for family separation.”

The date of that memo was well before there was such an announced policy.

More importantly, of course, is that Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services has no idea what happened to those children.

“Compelling new evidence has emerged revealing that high-level Department of Homeland Security officials were secretly and actively developing a new policy and legal framework for separating families as far back as December 2017,” Merkley wrote to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray. He asked for a perjury investigation.

A Homeland spokeswoman said the administration has explained its policy repeatedly to Congress, adding that in this case, Nielsen had rejected the option.

Instead, the administration opted for a “zero tolerance” immigration policy, in which undocumented adults who crossed the border have been routinely prosecuted criminally, which makes the removal of their children an inevitable result, as children cannot be incarcerated in adult facilities. The federal government separated nearly 3,000 children from their parents last year as a result of these new practices.

This week, a report from the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, which has been responsible for caring for the children after they are separated, said that thousands more children than were previously reported were probably taken from their parents or guardians by immigration agents since Trump took office.

“Although previous administrations also separated minors at the border in some instances — usually when they suspected the child was smuggled, or if the parent appeared unfit — the report said the practice appears far more common under Trump and began nearly a year before administration officials publicly acknowledged it,” The Washington Post reported.

Nielsen blamed the media for the crisis that ensued at the time.“This misreporting by Members, press & advocacy groups must stop. It is irresponsible and unproductive,” she said in a statement on Twitter in June. “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.” The memo makes clear that administration officials had an idea of the backlash the policies around families at the border would create.

President Trump has mused in recent months about reviving the practice, saying he believed it effectively deterred people from crossing the border illegally.

The president keeps talking about the humanitarian crisis on the border. But he never mentions that we still have children locked up on the border, separated from families, that we have not properly tracked the families for reunion or about the conditions and effects of the lock-ups.

Good decisions or not, regardless of position on the Wall or on partisan politicis altogether, someone is supposed to be in charge. Someone should be able to explain what’s going on to Congress with a straight face. Nielsen doesn’t seem to be either.


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