When we look back on this cruel and terrifying stretch of American history, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s 45 minutes of lies to the White House press corps about the Trump administration’s family-separation policy may mark a turning point in the way the humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border is covered—and whether the American people tolerate it or rise up against it.
Her ice-blue eyes blinking rapidly, Nielsen ricocheted between officious and affable as she assaulted the assembled reporters with mendacity, causing Twitter to explode with instant fact-checking. Trump’s Homeland Security chief lied when she insisted family separation was a matter of law, not policy (White House strategist Stephen Miller, the abomination’s architect, coolly terms it “policy”). She lied when she said that it was not intended as a deterrent to undocumented immigrants (her predecessor John Kelly, now chief of staff, described it as a way to “deter” parents from crossing last year). Nielsen depicted many of the “parents” crossing the border as smugglers, claiming that the number of “family units” consisting of a child and a smuggler, rather than a parent, jumped by 314 percent in the last five months. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump found that, while it’s true that the number of “individuals using minors to pose as fake family units” jumped from 46 in fiscal year 2017 to 191 in the first five months of 2018, that was out of 31,000 families. Which means that for every 1,000 families crossing the border seeking asylum, six included someone with a criminal record—whether smuggling, trafficking, drug dealing, or something else—using a child to press their claim; 994 did not.
Nielsen also insisted that detained children can call their parents (most cannot) and that they are being carefully tracked and well tended (lawyers, parents, advocates, and lawmakers who’ve visited the children say that’s not true either). The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics was told she could not hug a crying child; a former detention-center staffer turned whistle-blower said he was told not to let siblings hug each other. In one facility, a detained teenager was in charge of changing a toddler detainee’s diapers. “Once the parent and child are apart, they’re on separate legal tracks,” former ICE director John Sandweg told The New York Times. In fact, detained parents have no idea when, where, how—or even if—they’ll get their children back.