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DHS Secretary Nielsen Meets with Immigration and Human Rights Groups for First Time, Reiterates Trump Administration’s Misinformation and Sidesteps Family Immigration Crisis

Washington D.C. — Today, leaders of several immigrant and human rights organizations were invited for the first time under the Trump administration to meet with Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

In the midst of an ongoing crisis, where the administration has ripped more than 4,000 children from their parents at the southern border, advocates hoped to have a conversation focusing on family separation and a fair and humane process for families seeking protection.  

The secretary instead made clear that her focus is on preventing people from seeking protection in the United States. She refused to discuss the ongoing family separation crisis or answer any questions related to it, citing ongoing litigation. She also noted this meeting prefaced others she is to have with North American, Central American, and Colombian leaders about long-term regional solutions.  

Advocates presented the following steps which the secretary must immediately take to address the crisis of the administration’s own making:

  • End the “zero tolerance” policy and stop referring asylum seekers for criminal prosecutions that violate treaty prohibitions on penalties for illegal entry or presence, as well as all referrals to streamline prosecutions that violate due process.
  • Immediately reunify all separated families (including those families separated prior to the announcement of the zero-tolerance policy) through release on recognizance, parole, bond, or use of alternatives to detention.
    • Identify all parents who were or are in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, explain their right to be reunified with their child, and arrange for reunification. These reunification efforts must include parents who have been removed from the United States, those still in detention, and those who have been released.
  • Reduce the detention population via the use of community-based alternatives to detention, including reinstatement of the Family Case Management Program under the operation of a non-profit entity, as well as the use of parole, custody hearing, and other legal release assessment processes.
  • Abandon efforts to expand adult and family detention, including the creation of new tent cities and/or detention camps established on Department of Defense facilities.
  • Immediately ensure that meaningful access to counsel is guaranteed at all ICE facilities.
  • Ensure that the right to seek asylum—protected by international and domestic law—is assured for those arriving on the southern border by ending the practice of turning back asylum seekers or employing “metering” or other strategies that discourage asylum claims and leave adults and families stranded or waiting in unsafe conditions on the Mexico side of the border.
  • Stop efforts to deny protection to refugees through attempts to rewrite U.S. asylum law, policies, and adjudicatory processes in ways that violate U.S. law and treaty obligations.
  • Increase—rather than cut—support for rule of law and other initiatives to reduce violence and persecution in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, as well as support for UNHCR efforts to strengthen protection in other countries in the region.

Attendees of the meeting released the following quotes:

Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director, National Immigrant Justice Center: “This administration is locking up asylum seekers and separating families, abusive practices that strip individuals of the legal protections afforded to them under international and domestic law. These abuses must stop. Today we attempted to engage the secretary to take seriously the harm this administration has caused thousands of families and were met with the same misinformation it has expressed since it first created this crisis. We will continue to demand that our government respect the basic human rights of all migrants, and we will demand accountability when those rights are denied.”

Beth Werlin, executive director, American Immigration Council: “DHS is attacking families and criminalizing asylum seekers, but the secretary doesn’t seem to want to talk about that. The administration’s approach to families seeking protection in the United States is cruel and sometimes unlawful and deprives asylum seekers a fair chance to present their claims. DHS has humane options to choose from when it comes to families seeking refuge, and the agency is shirking its responsibilities.”

Eleanor Acer, senior director, Refugee Protection, Human Rights First: “The disastrous family separation policy should be a wake-up call to this administration. Sending children and families to detention facilities for even longer is another fiasco in the making. Jails, cages, criminal prosecutions, and attempts to rewrite the law to deny asylum are simply not the way this great country should treat families in search of protection. As DHS well knows, there are other tested and much less costly migration management strategies that have proven effective in supporting appearance.”

Michelle Brané, director, Migrant Rights & Justice, Women’s Refugee Commission: “The administration has intentionally violated human rights on our very shores. The chaos and lifelong damage to separated families imposed by U.S. authorities demonstrate either intentionally cruel violations of law, extreme incompetence, or both. The American people and a court order have made clear that this must stop immediately. Yet the administration is dragging its feet on reunifying families and avoiding the most logical, humane, and efficient solutions—including the return of a family case management program that was 100 percent effective in ensuring compliance with our laws. Locking the front door to a burning house only drives people to jump out windows and into further danger. Prosecuting asylum seekers, detaining or separating families, and eliminating child protection standards violates our laws and is not a solution. The administration must end this attack on families and asylum seekers immediately. Humane, reasonable approaches exist.”