DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defends separation of families at the border

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stuck to talking points on Monday even as she was bombarded with criticisms of the Trump administration’s family separation policy. 

Nielsen faced reporters’ questions at the White House press briefing Monday regarding President Donald Trump’s  “zero tolerance” crackdown on illegal immigration that has resulted in thousands of children being taken from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Department of Homeland Security secretary refused to budge from her script, even as a reporter asked, “How is this not child abuse?” 

“Be more specific, please,” Nielsen said.

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Migrants detained near US-Mexico border
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Migrants detained near US-Mexico border
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A U.S. Border Patrol agent takes a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A U.S. Border Patrol agent looks for groups of asylum seekers crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take groups of them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents take a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A Honduran mother holds her two-year-old as U.S. Border Patrol as agents review their papers near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A two-year-old Honduran stands with her mother after being detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained before being sent to a Border Patrol processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A U.S. Border Patrol spotlight shines on a terrified mother and son from Honduras as they are found in the dark near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and had become lost in the woods. They were then detained by Border Patrol agents and then sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents detain a group of Central American asylum seekers near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The group of women and children had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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Nielsen deflected the question by claiming that accounts about the children being detained were being “conflated” with those of the thousands of unaccompanied minors who are taken into custody at the border. 

The briefing room felt animated as Nielsen faced the press. Reporters shouted questions and engaged in debates over semantics with Nielsen. At least one reporter played audio, published earlier Monday by ProPublica, of children in a U.S. Border Patrol facility crying for their families.

There have been 1,995 children taken from 1,940 adults at the border from April 19 to May 31, The Associated Press reported.

Reporters repeatedly asked whether the children were being used as “pawns” in an attempt to advance Trump’s legislative agenda on immigration. 

Nielsen pushed back by accusing Congress of being at fault for refusing to close “loopholes” and claiming children are being used as pawns by traffickers. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also tried to divert blame onto legislators when asked similar questions at the Monday briefing. 

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Inside Casa Padre, the converted Walmart housing migrant children
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Inside Casa Padre, the converted Walmart housing migrant children
Occupants at Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for unaccompanied minors, in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., are seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 14, 2018. ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Casa Padre, an unaccompanied minor shelter, is seen in Brownsville, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare
Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for unaccompanied minors, in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., is seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 14, 2018. ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for unaccompanied minors, in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., is seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 14, 2018. ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Casa Padre, an unaccompanied minor shelter, is seen in Brownsville, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare
Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for unaccompanied minors, in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., is seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 14, 2018. ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for unaccompanied minors, in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., is seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 14, 2018. ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Casa Padre, an unaccompanied minor shelter, is seen in Brownsville, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare
Occupants at Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for unaccompanied minors, in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., are seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 14, 2018. ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for unaccompanied minors, in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., is seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 14, 2018. ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
An occupant at Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for unaccompanied minors, in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., is seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 14, 2018. ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Occupants at Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for unaccompanied minors, in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., are seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 14, 2018. ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Casa Padre, an unaccompanied minor shelter, is seen in Brownsville, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare
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Both officials pushed a debunked idea that the family separation policy is the law.

“It’s a law passed by the United States Congress,” Nielsen falsely said in response to a reporter. “Rather than fixing the law, Congress is asking those of us who enforce the law to turn our backs on the law and not enforce the law. That’s not an answer.”

There is no law requiring immigrant families to be separated. This practice is a choice put in place by the Trump administration and can be reversed by the president.  

Trump’s administration has made it a priority to seek criminal charges against those caught crossing the border illegally. Though former presidents Barack Obama and George Bush put unaccompanied minors at the border into government custody, they typically did not pursue family separation

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.
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