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Why Trump decided Nielsen wasn’t tough enough on immigration

On Sunday, President Trump announced the resignation of Homeland Security Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen, who reportedly was forced to step down amid Trump’s growing frustration with the growing number of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. Amna Nawaz reports and joins Judy Woodruff with Yamiche Alcindor to discuss why Nielsen fell out of favor with Trump and what the shakeup means for immigration policy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The shakeups at the highest levels of the Trump administration continue with the latest departure of a Cabinet member, leaving a number of key agencies with acting leaders.

    Amna Nawaz reports.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    With President Trump increasingly frustrated at growing numbers of families and children crossing the border, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, often on the receiving end of that frustration, resigned from her role Sunday evening.

    Today, she spoke briefly outside her Virginia home.

  • Kirstjen Nielsen:

    I just want to thank the president again for the tremendous opportunity to serve this country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In a statement yesterday, Nielsen said she hopes her successor — quote — "will have the support of Congress and the courts in fixing laws which have impeded our ability to fully secure America's borders."

    Nielsen helmed some of the Trump administration's most aggressive immigration efforts, like separating migrant children from their families under the zero tolerance policy. An estimated 2,700 children were separated between October 2017 and May 2018.

    The president ended zero tolerance by executive order that June. But it was Nielsen who fielded questions about the policy in a December 2018 House Judiciary hearing.

  • Kirstjen Nielsen:

    I'm not a liar. We have never had a policy for family separation. The policy of family separation would mean that any family that I encountered in the interior, I would separate. It would mean that any family that I found at a port of entry, I would separate.

    It would mean that every single family that I found illegally crossing the border, we would separate. We did none of those.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Three months later, before a House Homeland Security hearing, Nielsen's answer had evolved.

  • Kirstjen Nielsen:

    Ma'am, it's not a policy. It's the law. We enforce the law.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A number of legal challenges, including one federal judge ordering and overseeing family reunifications, are still unfolding, and the full scope of separations is still unknown.

    Nielsen's DHS tenure also comprised a hardening of the U.S. southern border, requesting thousands of National Guard troops as backup in 2018, and billions in emergency funds for the border wall, also forcing legal asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases unfold in the U.S., and limiting the number who can legally enter in the first place, leaving hundreds of families sleeping on the streets as they wait their turns outside ports of entry.

    Also on her watch, a November 2018 incident in which Border Patrol agents fired tear gas into a group of migrants in Mexico. Just last week, President Trump joined Nielsen as she capped off a three-day border tour, still pushing the administration's hard-line immigration policies.

    The president announced Sunday that Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan will become the acting DHS secretary. McAleenan spent years on the operational side of America's immigration debates. His selection to run the entire agency now puts a sharper focus on a key priority for President Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Amna Nawaz joins me now, along with our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor.

    Hello to both of you.

    So, Amna, we just got news a federal district judge in California has ruled that the president's asylum policy, which you referred to in that piece, is not going forward. He's going to issue an injunction on Friday.

    What is this going to mean?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, it basically means that the president's policy called the migrant protection protocol, it forces legal asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases unfold here in the U.S.

    This puts a stop on it. They have already rolled it out at three ports of entry, but they wanted to roll it out across the rest of the border. It's another blow to the Trump administration and something they wanted to do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And one more legal wrinkle for them.

    So, Yamiche, it is clear that this resignation of the homeland security secretary comes at a time when a lot of turmoil, legal challenges. What does her leaving, forced leaving, mean for immigration policy?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, for months, President Trump was signaling that he wasn't happy with the leadership of Secretary Nielsen.

    She was seen as someone who didn't have a lot of allies in the White House. Former head of DHS John Kelly, General John Kelly, was the person who recommended her for this job. But people like Stephen Miller, who's a top aide to the president and really the architect of his immigration policies, said that she wasn't someone who's forcibly talking about the president's administration well enough, and she was someone that wasn't seen as really seeing this and sounding the law — this alarm as a national emergency.

    But a larger picture here is the idea that this Trump administration, sources tell me, is really pushing the limits on what's legal for immigration policy. So, a source within DHS told me today the president really wants to do things that are simply illegal.

    That's why he's having these courtroom setbacks. So I want to walk through some of the things that people say he's pushing the limits on. There's the family separation of immigrants. There's also the denying of asylum between ports of entry and saying, if you came between points of entry, you can't come.

    And then there's returning asylum seekers to Mexico and sometimes in their native countries. Now, not all of these policies have been rolled out. But I have been at the table when Secretary Nielsen and Vice President Pence have talked about these things, and said that they think that this is the best way to protect America.

    The White House's stance is these things are legal. But that's just, of course, not what the courts are saying.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, with Secretary Nielsen gone, how does that affect the administration's ability to do what the president wants?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    I think it's going to come down to whether or not the person who takes Secretary Nielsen's job, whether that person is going to go a little bit farther.

    Nielsen was someone who became the face of all sorts of controversial immigration policies. But, in this case, we're going to have to see whether or not her replacement is someone who's more well-liked than she was.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And back to you, Amna, the president — in line with all this, the president saying things like the country's full, that we don't need any more immigrants. What kind of policy are we talking about?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes, look, there's a number of policies the administration could still legally pursue if they wanted to. They could go back to family separation.

    They were still separating, we should point out, with a much lower bar than is usually prosecuted just for immigration violations. If they push back against this remain-in-Mexico asylum policy, they could try to roll that out across the border.

    Judy, they keep ringing the bell saying, look, something has to change because it's so bad. The situation is going to get worse and worse.

    It's already very bad. We have to remember their detention facilities are overcrowded. Conditions there are very bad for these vulnerable families and children. We haven't been too far away now from the date when two migrant children died in U.S. government custody. We have women giving birth in U.S. government custody.

    The number of miscarriages has gone up. The situation is actually still very bad. And if we continue to push some of these policies, if the administration says, we're going to push back some of these vulnerable communities, the argument is, you're making them even more vulnerable in the process.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, Amna, I want to ask you about the man the president says he wants to take over for the time being as head of Homeland Security.

    I know there's some question about whether that can actually happen, Kevin McAleenan. But what do we know?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Kevin McAleenan is a 47-year-old. He came up through the Border Patrol agency. He was a lawyer before that. He worked under the Obama administration. He was highly decorated, highly respected, well-liked.

    All my sources within DHS and CBP say, he knows what he's talking about. He has operational experience. I hear the phrase, he's a good guy a lot.

    But this good guy, let's not forget, was basically the tip of the spear when it came to a lot of the policies we saw Kirstjen Nielsen as the face of. Family separation, those were his agents doing the separating.

    Down in El Paso last week, he held a press conference in front of a group of families and children who were held behind a razor-wire fence and held under a bridge overpass overnight sleeping on rocks. This is a man who's willing to say, I can be tougher when I need to be.

    The question is, can he be tough enough that the president continues to like him?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, again, we will see whether that nomination goes forward — or appointment, I should say.

    Amna Nawaz, Yamiche Alcindor, the stories — the story keeps going. Thank you both.

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