Sessions and Nielsen Give Trump ‘Shock and Awe’ on Our Southern Border

As we know, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen recently made the decision to detain every migrant who crossed our southern border while they await prosecution, leading to separation from their children. Here is how Reuters reported on the story at the time this policy was announced:

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ramped up calls on Friday to criminally prosecute immigrants who cross illegally into the United States, adding to a barrage of statements on immigration by the administration of President Donald Trump this week.

Pointing to an upswing in border crossings to levels seen during former President Barack Obama’s tenure, Sessions said he was ordering U.S. Attorneys offices near the Southwest border to prioritize bringing cases against first-time offenders.

During an NPR interview in which she was asked about this decision, Secretary Nielsen said this:

First of all, the law says if you cross between the ports of entry, you are entering without inspection and that is a crime. First time is a misdemeanor. After that it’s a felony. And then it goes on from there. So that hasn’t changed, that’s the underlying law. Our policy has not changed in that if you break the law, we will refer you for prosecution. What that means, however, is if you are single adult, if you are part of a family, if you are pregnant, if you have any other condition, you’re an adult and you break the law, we will refer you. Operationally what that means is we will have to separate your family. That’s no different than what we do every day in every part of the United States when an adult of a family commits a crime. If you as a parent break into a house, you will be incarcerated by police and thereby separated from your family. We’re doing the same thing at the border.

Did you catch the lie she told there? The whole policy is based on prioritizing first-time offenders who have committed misdemeanors. In this country, it is not normal practice to detain people who have been charged with a misdemeanor and separate them from their family.

Nielsen is right, the underlying law hasn’t changed. What the Trump administration has changed is that previously, people who committed the misdemeanor offense of unlawfully crossing our border were released awaiting a court hearing—much like anyone else charged with a misdemeanor would be. Now, for undocumented immigrants, that charge comes with detention and separation from their children.

You can tell that this policy is causing headaches for the Trump administration because they are rolling out one excuse after another, from “it’s biblical” to the standard Trump lie about how everything bad is the Democrat’s fault.

But two months into Trump’s presidency, then-DHS Secretary John Kelly announced that the administration was considering this policy change.

Kelly: “Yes I’m considering (that), in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network. I am considering exactly that. They will be well cared for as we deal with their parents. … It’s more important to me, Wolf, to try to keep people off of this awful network.”…

Currently, when adults enter the country accompanied by children, they are generally released into the US and able to stay in the country, pending disposition of their cases, the official said.

The proposal would allow US immigration officials to separate children from the adults they came here with. The adults could be kept in detention, and the children could be moved elsewhere under protected status, possibly with family members already in the country or to state protective custody such as child protective services.

As Jonathan Blitzer documented, the proposal was rejected because of “intense criticism from the press, human-rights advocates, and members of Congress.” Why did it resurface?

Trump has complained that U.S. immigration laws are “pathetic” and riddled with “loopholes,” including, among other things, the “catch and release” of asylum seekers. He’s also held Nielsen personally responsible for the rise in migration from Central America. “What you’re seeing now is the President’s frustration with the fact that the numbers are back up,” the person told me.

If you remember, back in May we began to hear reports of the president berating his DHS Secretary during cabinet meetings. Here is the cause:

In April, the number of illegal border crossers arrested by U.S. agents topped 50,000 for the second consecutive month. The increase has stripped the president of one of his proudest accomplishments — the sharp drop in illegal migration in the months immediately following his 2016 win.

Trump has been in no mood to hear that migration patterns have returned to historic, seasonal norms this spring, a trend occurring in part because the U.S. economy is buzzing and farms, factories and businesses are desperate for workers.

Reports are that Trump wanted a crackdown that looked like “shock and awe.” It appears as though that is exactly what he’s gotten from Sessions and Nielsen.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.