WASHINGTON ― Kirstjen Nielsen defended her legacy of carrying out President Donald Trump’s policy of separating migrant families as his homeland security secretary Tuesday, saying she was simply following the law.
“I don’t regret enforcing the law,” said Nielsen at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit. The moderator, PBS journalist Amna Nawaz, repeatedly questioned Nielsen on whether she regretted signing off on a memo that authorized the routine separation of migrant children from their families so that their parents could be detained.
Nielsen’s appearance was wrapped in controversy. Activists had been pressuring Fortune to rescind its invitation to Trump’s former homeland security secretary, who resigned in April. Three women who had been scheduled to speak at the summit ― filmmaker dream hampton, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and singer Brandi Carlile ― withdrew from the event because of Nielsen’s participation.
Clifton Leaf, Fortune’s editor-in-chief, acknowledged the controversy Tuesday in remarks introducing the session, saying that while he understood the criticism, “part of Fortune’s mission is to provide a platform for these discussions” and he promised “tough” questions.
“These issues are so important that we really need more voices. And we need to be additive and try to find a way to come together, and not work on taking people apart,” Nielsen said, justifying why she deserved to be at the gathering.
Nawaz did repeatedly challenge Nielsen’s claims, such as the former official’s insistence that the Trump administration’s policy was really just following the law and not a break from what previous administrations had done.
“Under previous administrations, they also enforced this exact law,” Nielsen claimed. “What is different is the numbers of people have greatly increased over the last few years.”
Nawaz noted that officials from previous administrations disagreed, saying the reason the country did not see thousands of children detained without their parents is that they always erred on the best interests of the child; they would separate only if there was a danger of immediate harm to the child.
While family separation did occur in some instances under past presidents, the Trump administration launched a “zero tolerance” crackdown at the border that led to thousands of children being split from their parents as a matter of policy.
The administration began to prosecute people for crossing the border even if they had children. Prior administrations had often declined to do, putting the families directly in immigration proceedings rather than sending parents to jail and taking their kids away. But the Trump administration chose to prosecute parents and split up families instead.
While the law around crossing the border illegally isn’t new, the family separations policy certainly was. And the administration telegraphed that it considered splitting up families as a possible deterrent to unauthorized immigration long before beginning the policy in earnest ― Nielsen’s predecessor, John Kelly, said in 2017 that he was considering family separation to discourage families from coming to the United States.
Many members of the audience seemed sympathetic to Nielsen and the position she was put in.
Nielsen objected when Nawaz said she was still a part of the Trump administration, saying she was on an unpaid advisory board (the National Infrastructure Advisory Council) composed of business leaders who advise the administration.
“Are you telling every CEO in here that they should never advise the government on how to make something work?” Nielsen said, receiving applause from the audience, composed primarily of women in business.
At least one woman in the audience audibly said that the treatment of Nielsen and the tough questioning was “rude.”
Nielsen didn’t face any outcries in the room, although activists were protesting outside the venue and Credo Action, a progressive group, placed pro-immigrant flyers in the restrooms, drove around a mobile billboard and blocked the escalators leading to the room where Nielsen was speaking.
Heidi Hess, co-director of Credo Action who blocked the escalators on Tuesday, said Nielsen received a platform to “double down on family separation and continue to lie to the American people about her complicity with Trump’s dangerous racism.”
“We appreciate Amna Nawaz pushing back on Nielsen’s repeated attempts to lie and dodge questions, but she was still helping legitimize Nielsen’s comeback tour by letting her recontextualize her actions and reenter Fortune’s world of powerful women,” Hess said. “No one should be helping sweep the terrible trauma Nielsen inflicted upon thousands of immigrant families under the rug. Fortune and PBS should be ashamed of themselves for elevating toxic waste like Kirstjen Nielsen.”
Nielsen was originally slated to talk about “supply chain risk management” ― a far less controversial topic ― in addition to the more high-profile aspects of her time as homeland security secretary. It was also billed as a “conversation.” But the session was later changed on Fortune’s agenda to “hard questions,” and references to the other topic were dropped. Fortune said the change was due to another panelist dropping out.
Nielsen seemed disappointed that she had to spend all her time on the child separation policy, jumping in at the end of the panel with, “I wish we had gotten to cyber, because that’s why I was originally here, for a cyber panel. So let me just quickly say, it’s Cyber Awareness Month.”
Elise Foley contributed reporting.