Nielsen cites ‘system-wide meltdown’ to argue for the power to deport migrant kids faster

In a memo to Congress, Nielsen asks for even more authority.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee on border security on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 6, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee on border security on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 6, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is asking Congress for the power to deport unaccompanied Central American minors more quickly, hold migrant families in detention for longer periods of time, and force minors to apply for asylum in their countries of origin rather than in the country where they feel safest.

In a letter to lawmakers on Thursday, first obtained by NBC News, Nielsen cites the “system-wide meltdown” and the “humanitarian and security catastrophe that is worsening by the day” at the U.S.-Mexico border as the reason for the policy change. Nielsen claims this will address the “root causes of the emergency.”

One of the “root causes” Nielsen is attempting to address is a federal court agreement known as the Flores settlement, which prohibits the detention of migrant children for longer than 20 days. Overturning Flores would allow for the indefinite detention of children and their families.

While Nielsen doesn’t explicitly cite Flores, her proposed policy change would not require the government to abide by the precedent the settlement set — which explains why her letter also requests more funding for “thousands” of additional detention beds for migrant children. 


Before the official introduction of the “zero tolerance policy” last spring, which created the family separation crisis, the Trump administration ran a smaller pilot program in 2017. The administration called the program a success, arguing that it decreased the number of illegal border crossings by family units by 64 percent. But according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) numbers, in July 2017, when the program first started, 231 family-unit members were apprehended in the El Paso sector. In November 2017, that figure was 379. This amounts to a 64 percent increase, not decrease, in family units.

That’s why many migration policy experts point out that deterrence policies like family separation do very little to decrease the amount of migrants coming to the United States.

Another mythical “pull factor” Nielsen is attempting to eliminate relates to unaccompanied minors from Central America. Under current law, Central American minors are transferred to the care of Health and Human Services (HHS) before being ultimately placed with a family member or sponsor already in the United States. Nielsen wants to end this practice altogether and send these children back to their countries of origin “if they have no legal right to stay.”

The reason the situation at the border has actually become so untenable is due in large part to the Trump administration’s own immigration policies. Last year, DHS began limiting, or “metering,” the number of asylum seekers that are processed each day. This has resulted in months-long wait times at ports of entry for families fleeing violence in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Desperate families have resorted to crossing between ports of entry, which has created the spike in border apprehensions that Nielsen and other administration members consistently refer to.

Overturning Flores and halting the policy of transferring Central American minors to HHS care are not new asks from the administration. During the federal government shutdown in early 2019, the administration asked, in exchange for border wall money and the reopening of the federal government, to require Central American migrant children to have their asylum requests processed in their country of origin. At the height of the family separation crisis, the administration consistently pointed a finger at the Flores settlement, claiming it was the reason why DHS was put in the position of separating children from their families.


Nielsen’s proposal would first have to clear the Democratic-controlled House, where a significant portion of its more progressive members have vowed to consistently withhold any additional funding for DHS.

Democrats are particularly mistrustful of Nielsen considering that she lied about DHS having a policy of family separation.

“We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period,” Nielsen wrote in a tweet on June 17. On April 23, however, Nielsen signed onto a memo that authorized the administration’s zero tolerance policy at the southwest border.

The memo allowed DHS to “permissibly direct the separation of parents or legal guardians and minors held in immigration detention so that the parent or legal guardian can be prosecuted.”