Kirstjen Nielsen
Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security/WikiMedia Commons

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified before Congress last week on the Trump administration’s family separation policy. As she had done last April, Nielsen refused to admit that the policy existed and suggested that it was simply the outcome of prosecuting adults for illegal border crossings.

But the record is clear that the Trump administration began talking about a family separation policy almost immediately after they entered the White House. Here’s what Nielsen’s predecessor John Kelly told Wolf Blitzer back in March 2017.

“We have tremendous experience of dealing with unaccompanied minors,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.” “We turn them over to (Health and Human Services) and they do a very, very good job of putting them in foster care or linking them up with parents or family members in the United States.”

He continued: “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.”

As Jonathan Blitzer documented, the idea of separating families at the border surfaced again in August 2017 as officials brainstormed ideas for how to “deter immigrants from coming to the U.S. illegally.” According to a report in the New York Times, family separations began in October 2017, a full six months before former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his “zero tolerance policy,” which Nielsen now claims as the impetus for the separations.

BuzzFeed reporter Hamed Aleaziz has now added to the story with a memo he uncovered that was written on July 4, 2017 by Jonathan White, the former deputy director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, noting that the family separation policy was actually part of a two-pronged effort to deter migrants. White wrote:

DHS has launched a national “UAC Sponsor Initiative,” which involves contacting sponsors of UAC who are without legal status, interviewing them, and in some cases taking them into custody, issuing criminal charges against them, or issuing Notices to Appear…This step would represent one half of the DHS policy changes necessary to fulfill the “DHS Deterrence” scenario model (since family unit separations are not yet being implemented).

In other words, the so-called “DHS Deterrence” model included not only separating families, but luring those who had stepped forward to sponsor unaccompanied children in order to prosecute and deport them if they were undocumented. That amounts to using migrant children as bait, which is as deplorable as separating families.

All this means that the DHS had developed this deterrence model that included family separation by July 2017, long before Sessions announced his zero tolerance policy. So why was Nielsen still lying about that as recently as last week? It comes down to the fact that the family separation policy was intended to be a deterrent. Philip Bump documented all of the times that Trump officials admitted as much. Now we learn that there was actually a “DHS Deterrence” model.

As a lawyer, Secretary Nielsen is probably aware of the fact that what the Trump administration did was illegal.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ruled that the federal government can’t detain immigrants indefinitely for the sake of deterrence alone. Instead, the decision to detain needed to be based on whether the immigrant posed a threat to the community or a flight risk.

A few months ago Adam Serwer wrote an important piece about Trump and his supporters, suggesting that “cruelty is the point.” Nowhere is that more evident than the two-pronged strategy the DHS adopted to deter migrants. The policy was designed to be cruel in a failed attempt to stop them from even trying to enter the U.S. But it wasn’t just cruel, it was also illegal. Those responsible need to be held accountable.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.