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.
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.
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 has been updated with more responses from Nielsen at the briefing.