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Secretary Nominee Tells Senate DHS Will Target Criminals, Not DREAMers

Kirstjen Nielsen testifies during her confirmation hearing to be Homeland Security secretary before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Nov. 8, 2017. (Rex Features via AP Images)

WASHINGTON – Kirstjen Nielsen, President Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security, told Congress today that if she is confirmed DACA beneficiaries will not be an enforcement priority, nor will undocumented immigrants who have not committed crimes beyond illegal entry.

Nielsen’s comments, which she offered during questioning from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) during her confirmation hearing, are in line with remarks made by her boss, former DHS Secretary John Kelly, in April. Nielsen, who served as Kelly’s top DHS aide, is currently White House principal deputy chief of staff under Kelly. She said that if confirmed, she or ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan will issue a written directive clarifying this enforcement policy.

Homan has repeatedly offered statements contrary to Nielsen’s. Last month, while speaking at the Heritage Foundation, Homan said, “People that knowingly, intentionally violate the laws of this country, enter this country illegally, which is a crime – that’s been lost in the last decade – when you commit a crime against this country, enter the country illegally, you should be worried. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” He argued that ICE has been vilified in the media for following deportation orders from judges.

Harris noted that between January and September ICE arrested nearly three times the number of individuals with no criminal history, compared to the same period in 2016. Harris told Nielsen that if DHS is focused on true criminals “it is clear that the front line officers have a different impression.” She then asked for a commitment on a written directive stating that criminal offenders, beyond illegal entry, will be the priority.

“Yes, although I understand that to be the current policy, but if there’s any question about it, we will clarify,” Nielsen told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs.

Earlier in the hearing, Nielsen said, “I agree that we should prioritize criminals and any others that are concerning in any way from a national security perspective. … The criminality that I would be talking about with respect to enforcement priority is above and beyond the original illegal entry.”

Harris began her questioning with remarks about Nielsen’s involvement in the administration’s Sept. 5 decision to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which set a six-month expiration on the program. If Congress does not act, the program will expire in March 2018, voiding nearly 700,000 DREAMers’ ability to live and work in the U.S. legally.

Nielsen said that she was instrumental in the White House crafting a policy process for the DACA decision, telling Harris that she was at a meeting in late August including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House Senior Advisor Stephen Miller and DHS Acting Secretary Elaine Duke.

“Every day since that announcement was made, and even before, (DREAMers) wake up terrified,” Harris said. “Every night they are afraid that there is going to be a knock on their door at midnight, removing them from their home and tearing apart their family. Under these circumstances do you agree that legislation must be passed to protect these young people before the end of this calendar year?”

“I believe that we must and we owe it to them to find a permanent solution. It’s no way to expect anyone to live, two months at a time,” Nielsen replied.

She also told Harris that, if confirmed, DREAMers will not be an enforcement priority while Congress works toward a solution. Nielsen also was asked to confirm that personal information offered by DACA recipients during the application process will not be used against them for potential deportation.

“Yes, as I understand it, there are extraordinarily limited circumstances that involve very specifically national or public safety – to my knowledge there are no other reasons or exceptions to enable that information to be shared for any enforcement purpose,” Nielsen said. “If there are any, I will commit to come to you and immediately talk to you about it and work out a solution together.”