It’s not just Donald Trump that Kirstjen Nielsen has to worry about.
Now more than two dozen House Democrats, on the cusp of taking over the chamber’s majority, are demanding the Homeland Security secretary “immediately” resign.
As reports circulate that Trump is looking to oust Nielsen for allegedly being insufficiently draconian on immigration, the criticism on Nielsen’s left flank calls her a liar and an architect of ruinous policies that have ripped migrant children from their parents’ arms.
In a new four-paragraph letter to Nielsen, 26 House Democrats direct unusually blunt language at her—potentially signaling an increased willingness by the incoming Democratic House to challenge the administration’s highly controversial immigration policies after an acquiescence to the mass deportations and rising immigrant incarceration of Barack Obama’s presidency.
“You are responsible for the unimaginable trauma of thousands of children across the United States. From the children torn from their parents at the border, to Dreamers facing exile from their home, and to the U.S. citizen children who face losing a parent to deportation; your actions continue to wreak havoc on communities across this nation,” reads the November 14 letter, obtained by The Daily Beast.
The architect of the letter, Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva, also warned Trump against nominating immigration hardliners to replace Nielsen, like former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach and ex-acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) chief Thomas Homan.
Nielsen “allowed this agency to be further corrupted and be weaponized politically for Trump,” Grijalva, who has called for Nielsen’s resignation since August, told The Daily Beast.
“Trump will never take the blame for overplaying his cards with the caravan and sending the troops. That got no traction [politically] and they still lost,” Grijalva said. “Nielsen is the scapegoat, and if she’s gone, she’s gone, good riddance. Whoever replaces her, I hope the confirmation process in the Senate brings out all the questions, particularly with some people as notorious as Kobach or Homan.”
Grijalva said that the next DHS secretary would face “a [House] majority that wants to do oversight, wants to hold the agency accountable, and appropriators have questions about where the priorities are in the DHS budget.” Earlier this week, The Daily Beast revealed that ICE is imprisoning a record 44,631 people daily, prompting unanswered questions of where ICE found the money for 4,000 detentions above the level Congress funded.
After now-ousted attorney general Jeff Sessions unveiled a “zero tolerance” immigration policy in April, DHS under Nielsen began separating immigrant children apprehended at the border from intact families. But Nielsen, in May congressional testimony, denied that the administration had any formal policy to separate the children. In June, blaming the media, she tweeted: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
But an internal document published last month showed Nielsen lied. An April 23 memo for Nielsen by the heads of DHS’ immigration agencies, co-signed by Homan and obtained by the Project on Government Oversight, explicitly advised the secretary that DHS could “permissibly direct the separation of parents and legal guardians of minors held in immigration detention so that the parent or legal guardian can be prosecuted pursuant to these authorities.” A redacted line indicates that Nielsen affixed her signature to that option. As well, a Health and Human Services official testified in July that he had warned colleagues against implementing the separation policy.
“You disregarded the advice of others, implemented the family separation policy anyway, and then flatly denied its existence… You deliberately misinformed the American public and can no longer be trusted to lead the Department of Homeland Security with integrity,” the 26 Democrats wrote to Nielsen.
“During your tenure as DHS Secretary, you have inflicted real harm on children and families coming to the United States, immigrant youth growing up in communities across the country, and U.S. citizen children born to immigrant parents. These actions have ruined the moral credibility of the United States and are an affront to American values.”
Nielsen, who has long been reportedly on the outs with Trump, joined Defense Secretary James Mattis on a visit with U.S. troops sent to the Texas-Mexico border ahead of the midterm elections.
Grijalva said he began discussing the letter with colleagues before the midterms—and before this most recent spate of reports that Trump wants Nielsen out. “We started talking about making sure she wouldn’t get to wash her hands of everything that’s going on,” he said. He did not yet reach out to the incoming Democratic freshman class but expected additional signatories to the Nielsen letter.
The Arizona congressman, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, conceded that “there was a reluctance to go after Obama” on immigration by Democratic legislators and said it was a “lesson learned.” Deportations skyrocketed under Obama, prompting the president of the National Council of La Raza in 2014 to label him a deporter-in-chief—and, some argue, inadvertently paving the way for Trump’s even more extreme immigration agenda.
“It’s important to note that the sensitivity and the awareness on the part of members of Congress is much higher and the responsibility to protecting values and laws more than protecting anyone in office, that has changed,” Grijalva said.
“There was a reluctance to go after Obama. It’s not just Trump—he’s divisive, he’s race-baited on immigration during his first two years and I don’t see him changing, but Congress has significantly changed.”
Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.