Migrant family separations, heckling: Key moments from Kirstjen Nielsen's troubled tenure as DHS secretary

WASHINGTON – Kirstjen Nielsen was the target of unrelenting attacks by critics of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies during her tumultuous tenure as homeland security secretary and, at times, even endured humiliating tongue-lashings from the president himself.

Nielsen resigned Sunday after a meeting with Trump amid tensions with some in the White House who felt she hadn’t done enough to halt illegal border crossings.

Nielsen said she would remain on the job through Wednesday to help provide a smooth transition for her successor, Kevin McAleenan, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner who will serve as acting DHS secretary.

Here’s a look at some of the key moments of her 16 months on the job:

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies

Children in ‘cages’

For many, Nielsen came to represent the face of the Trump administration’s controversial "zero tolerance” policy that led to the separation of thousands of migrant families.

Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo on the policy in April 2018, leading to a steep increase in migrant children being separated from their parents or guardians when they were apprehended. More than 2,500 families were separated under the policy.

It was Nielsen, though, who became most closely associated with the policy.

In news briefings and congressional hearings, Nielsen vigorously defended the administration and argued it was simply enforcing U.S. law. She took issue with descriptions of the policy as “family separation” and said it simply mandated the criminal prosecution against all migrants, including those crossing the border with children. That forced families to be separated, because children can't be housed in adult detention centers.

In one of her more memorable claims, Nielsen disputed that children separated from their families were being held in cages, even though photos and video showed young children in chain-link structures at Customers and Border Protection facilities.

To her critics, her defense of the policy indefensible.

“The irreparable harm she has caused in implementing brutal anti-immigrant policies cannot be measured and has left a dark stain on our country’s history,” said Christina Fialho, co-founder and executive director of Freedom for Immigrants.

Others came to her defense.

“I have thought that over the last several months that she’s done a number of things better than I expected her to do,” said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, which advocates for lower levels of legal and illegal immigration. “She’s like most people in that, if you’re in a job and there’s a little bit of on-the-job training, it’s just very, very difficult to take the bold moves that you need to do and do them well that are called for a crisis situation. She was in a very tough position.”

More: After resigning, Kirstjen Nielsen says she supports Trump's goal of 'securing the border'

Temporary Protected Status

Nielsen also continued a policy that began under Trump of phasing out the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, which has allowed more than 315,000 foreigners to legally live and work in the U.S. as their home countries recover from civil wars and natural disasters.

Arguing that the programs were wrongly extended by previous administrations, Nielsen cut them off one by one, ordering foreigners who have lived in the U.S. for decades to return home.

In doing so, she ignored pleas from Democrats, Republicans, immigrant rights activists and even the administration’s State Department, which argued that the home countries were not yet ready to accept tens of thousands of its residents.

A federal judge has blocked Homeland Security from deporting those families, who are mostly from Central America.

‘Remain in Mexico’ policy

In December, Nielsen announced a new policy banning asylum seekers from entering the U.S. and requiring them to stay in Mexico, a change that upended the way migrants fleeing persecution have been welcomed into the country for decades.

Under U.S. law, people requesting asylum at the southern border – either at a port of entry or after illegally entering the country, and who pass an initial screening – had been allowed to stay in the country pending an immigration judge’s decision on their application.

Under the new policy, which the administration calls Migrant Protection Protocols, that is no longer the case. Anybody who requests asylum is processed by federal immigration agents, then immediately returned to Mexico.

A coalition of immigration groups is seeking a court order to block the administration from enforcing the policy. On Monday, a federal judge in California issued a nationwide preliminary injunction against the policy, barring the administration from sending asylum-seekers back to Mexico.

More: DHS secretary: We face a humanitarian and security crisis

Trump’s ‘tough language’

Nielsen was present at the January 2018 meeting in which a frustrated Trump reportedly used a crude term to describe Haiti, El Salvador and African countries.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?" Trump reportedly said during the meeting, which was attended by a small group of lawmakers.

When asked about Trump’s comments during a Senate hearing, Nielsen said she did not hear Trump use “that word.”

Under questioning, Nielsen described the meeting as “impassioned” and acknowledged that Trump and others in the room had used “tough language.”

Gripes from Trump

Despite her public defense of Trump, Nielsen’s toughest critics included Trump himself.

The president berated Nielsen in front of others during Cabinet meetings, blaming her for a surge in illegal border crossings and arguing she had not done enough to stop them.

Trump griped that Nielsen wasn’t tough enough and often complained about her job performance as his administration made little headway in delivering on his promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The confrontations led to speculation that Nielsen planned to resign, but she stayed on the job nearly a year before finally submitting her resignation on Sunday.

Heckled at a dinner

Even eating out became a challenge for Nielsen amid the backlash over Trump’s immigration policies.

Last June, a group of protesters angry over Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy barged into the MXDC Cocina Mexicana, an upscale Mexican restaurant near the White House, and interrupted Nielsen’s dinner.

"How can you enjoy a Mexican dinner as you're deporting and imprisoning tens of thousands of people who come here seeking asylum in the United States?" protester Jesse Rabinowitz, a member of the D.C. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, shouted in a video posted on Facebook appearing to show the incident.

"We call on you to end family separation and abolish (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement),” Rabinowitz said.

Other protesters chanted and made speeches as Nielsen and another diner sat nearby. Another video appeared to show Nielsen her leaving the restaurant.

Contributing: John Fritze, Ryan Miller

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Migrant family separations, heckling: Key moments from Kirstjen Nielsen's troubled tenure as DHS secretary