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Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on "Authorities and Resources Needed to Protect and Secure the United States," on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Erin Schaff

Homeland Security chief defends separating immigrant families

WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of the Department of Homeland Security defended the Trump administration’s practice of separating children from parents when the family is being prosecuted for entering the U.S. illegally, telling a Senate committee Tuesday that removing children from parents facing criminal charges happens “in the United States every day.”

Kirstjen Nielsen, who has headed the agency since December, came under attack by Democratic senators days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions said a “zero tolerance” policy toward people entering the country illegally could lead to more families being split up while parents are prosecuted.

In a contentious exchange with Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Nielsen said her department was not taking children from parents as a way to deter illegal immigration. Rather, Nielsen said, if a person crosses the border illegally, “We will refer you for prosecution. You’ve broken U.S. law.”

When Harris pressed her about what that would mean for a 4-year-old child whose family faces charges of entering the country illegally, Nielsen said, “What we’ll be doing is prosecuting parents who’ve broken the law, just as we do every day in the United States of America.”

The children are transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services within 48 hours, she said. That department then finds a different family for the children to stay with while the parents are in custody, she said.

“They will be separated from their parent,” Harris said.

“Just as we do in the United States every day,” Nielsen replied.

But she did not dispute criticism by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that the government could do a better job of monitoring the children it places in a family’s custody.

“I could not agree with your concerns more, period,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that her agency and HHS have a procedure aimed at making sure the people caring for the children are not criminals.

“It is our duty to protect them, to keep them in a safe environment,” Nielsen said.

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