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Kirstjen Nielsen on Trump’s controversial immigration policies and why she resigned

President Trump’s immigration policies have been among the most controversial and criticized of his administration. Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was specifically known for executing and defending those policies when she headed the department between December 2017 and April 2019. Amna Nawaz joins Judy Woodruff to discuss her rare interview with Nielsen at a conference.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Trump administration's policies on separation of families, migrant children, border security and immigration have been some of the most controversial and criticized policies throughout the president's tenure.

    Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was known for specifically executing and defending those policies when she headed the department between December 2017 and April of this year.

    In a rare interview, she sat down this afternoon with our Amna Nawaz at the "Fortune" magazine Most Powerful Women Summit here in Washington.

    And Amna joins me now.

    Hello.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Hi, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you had a chance to talk to her.

    Tell us more about the circumstances, Amna. How did she happen to be at this event? We were saying this is her first interview in many months.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It is. It's her first since leaving the administration, for sure.

    When she resigned in April of this year, she basically sort of went silent. We haven't really heard much from her then. And, in truth, even when she was head of Homeland Security, she rarely gave interviews.

    But this was a private summit. People had to register and pay in advance to attend. It wasn't open to the public. It was hosted by "Fortune." It's called Women in Power.

    And, actually, her presence at the summit got a lot of outrage, basically because people said she shouldn't be given a platform in such — in this kind of environment to talk about her policies.

    Actually, people who were booked on the panels backed out because Nielsen was going to be there, including filmmaker Dream Hampton, singer Brandi Carlile, even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She cited a scheduling conflict, but a source close to her told reporters it was actually because she didn't want to share the bill with Nielsen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, there is a lot of controversy around what happened during her tenure.

    And one of the things that got the most attention was the administration's policy of separating families at the border, especially children. You asked her about that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I did indeed.

    Remember, in her role as the head of Homeland Security, she had to sign off on that policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S. Southern border.

    I asked her, knowing everything she knows now, looking back, does she regret making that decision?

    Here's what she had to tell me:

  • Kirstjen Nielsen:

    I don't regret enforcing the law, because I took an oath to do that, as did everybody at the Department of Homeland Security.

    We don't make the laws. We asked Congress to change the law. Congress reviewed the law in 2006, and decided to continue to make it illegal to cross in that manner.

    What I do wish had worked a lot better is that the coordination and information flow were simply insufficient for that number of people coming. It's heartbreaking that any family felt at any time that they had to cross the border illegally, because this is a terrible, dangerous journey. It's terrible.

    So what I regret is that we haven't solved it. And what I regret is that that information flow and coordination to quickly reunite the families was clearly not in place, and that's why the practice was stopped through an executive order.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, I have to point out it's somewhat remarkable to hear her all these many months later saying she doesn't regret the decision that is easily one of the most controversial policies under the Trump administration we have seen so far.

    You can see she stuck very close to the same talking points that she had back when she was running the agency, that all they were doing was enforcing the law.

    We have to continue to point out, there is no federal law that mandates the separation of children from their parents at the border. We know that this was done because of a DOJ policy change, saying everyone had to be prosecuted, so Nielsen had to sign off on those families being separated.

    And we also know thousands of children were separated as a result. The authorities are still trying to figure out exactly how many and how to reunite them all.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Still trying to figure out how many.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And separate from all this — and you have been reporting on this — are the concerns that have since been raised about the effect that this separation has had on these children.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There's been a lot of research and looking into that.

    And you talked to Secretary Nielsen about that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I did.

    There's been a lot of scrutiny since the policy was ended, a lot of people called to testify before Congress about what they knew and when they knew it.

    We know officials on the HHS side — that was responsible for the care and the custody of those children — said, we were raising red flags. We knew this would be traumatic for children. We didn't want them to do this.

    We also know there were people within DHS, which was Nielsen's agency. So I asked her, did any of those concerns reach you about the harm to children?

    Here's what she had to say:

    Did people ever specifically raise to you the concern that children would be traumatized a result — as a result of this policy?

  • Kirstjen Nielsen:

    Not when I was — not during that…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Kirstjen Nielsen:

    No.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Not directly to you? You never heard those concerns?

  • Kirstjen Nielsen:

    Not from staff, no.

    I mean, I think from the biggest…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    From child welfare experts, anyone outside the government?

  • Kirstjen Nielsen:

    Yes, from the biggest — from the biggest — this was nothing new, to be clear.

    So, from a staff perspective, I think there was this belief that to not enforce the law would encourage trafficking, would encourage child to be — children to be used as pawns.

    And the law enforcement officials had taken an oath, which is why the operational entities recommended that we choose to enforce the law. We never forced it 100 percent. If you had two parents coming across, we chose specifically not to refer both parents, so that one parent could stay with the children.

    As I said, we did try to limit as much as possible any tender-age situation. But it wasn't — it clearly wasn't working. So we stopped it during an executive order. And we have been hopeful that Congress will look at this and really take very seriously, what is the best way to do this?

    I mean, the debate — the debate is very false.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, we know now, contrary to what Secretary Nielsen was saying, that tender-age children, she had said, were never separated. We know now dozens of those children under the age of 5…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Those very young…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Exactly — were separated.

    We also know it took the administration several weeks after putting the policy into place before they ended it with an executive order. And there are still concerns about ongoing separations at the border.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Amna, there was, again, another ongoing discussion about whether this was a new policy or not.

    I think, while she was in office, she said there was no policy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What did she have to say today?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes, this has been the line from the administration: This wasn't a new policy.

    We have to continue to remind people about the facts around this, that this was a policy enacted by this administration. It wasn't done by previous administrations in this way. They changed the prosecution law, which made them change the separation law.

    It's a bit of a semantic argument they have been making. It's not an official policy, but it was definitely a new practice.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Amna, did you ask her about why she left? She was, what, in the administration 16 months.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was tumultuous.

    What did she say?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, there was a long history of reports about tension between Secretary Nielsen and President Trump, him wanting her to go further to try to stop some of the large numbers of people that we saw coming across the southern border, and her being unwilling to do that.

    We know that he tweeted back in April that he wanted to go in a tougher direction when it came to immigration. Within 72 hours, she had handed in her resignation.

    Here's what she had to say about why she left the administration:

    What led you to resign from this administration?

  • Kirstjen Nielsen:

    Well, what led me to resign is, there were a lot of things that there were those in the administration who thought that we should do.

    And just as I spoke truth to power from the very beginning, it became clear that saying no and refusing to do it myself wasn't going to be enough. So it was time for me to offer my resignation. That's what I did.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Judy, we should remind people the agency remains in a bit of turmoil.

    When Nielsen left, Kevin McAleenan took over. He has been the acting secretary since then. Just 10 days ago, he actually announced he is resigning as well. He has a few more days left on the job.

    But we still don't know who the next person will be to lead this 240,000-person agency. That will be the fifth person to fill this role in the administration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    No permanent choice. And we don't even know who the acting next choice will be.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Not yet. We do not.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amna Nawaz, thank you very much.

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