‘I Don’t Regret Enforcing the Law.’ Former DHS Head Nielsen Defends Family Separation in Heated Interview

October 22, 2019, 9:36 PM UTC

Kirstjen Nielsen, the former secretary of Homeland Security who resigned in April, said she does not regret pursuing the Trump administration’s zero tolerance approach to a border law that resulted in thousands of migrant children being separated from their families.

Speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women’s Summit in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Nielsen portrayed the family separation practice as a necessary expedient in the face of a “broken” border situation.

“I don’t regret enforcing the law because I took an oath to do that,” Nielsen told PBS News reporter Amna Nawaz, who had asked the former Trump cabinet member if she regretted signing a policy memo that endorsed separating families at the southern U.S. border.

Nielsen’s first two responses did not directly address Nawaz’s question, but instead she spent three minutes out of the controversial 20-minute conference session providing background on the issue as well as encouraging more voices to be a part of the discussion. “We need to be additive and find a way to come together to solve the problem, and not work on taking people apart,” Nielsen said.

The law Nielsen referenced has been on the books for years and states that it’s illegal to enter the U.S. outside of a designated point of entry. In spring 2018, Nielsen signed off on a memo calling for dramatic enforcement measures that included the separation of parents from their children—a step that resulted in young children being placed with officials from Health and Human Services, while their parents were placed with another agency to be prosecuted.

The Trump administration’s strict enforcement measures resulted in a firestorm of criticism, with experts warning that children would be subject to trauma, and that a lack of coordination between federal agencies could lead to separations that would last for weeks or months.

In some cases, the government lost track of to whom the children belonged. In other instances, children younger than five-years-old were separated from their families, despite policies intended to prevent this. Under intense media scrutiny, President Trump issued an executive order in mid-2018 relaxing the separation policy.

Nielsen did, however, express regret over the government’s failure to coordinate information, which led to children being detained apart from their families for a lengthy period of time.

The interview between Nielsen and Nawaz became heated on several occasions, including when the former secretary invoked “fake families” as a rationale for imposing the family separation measures. Nawaz aggressively challenged the rationale, noting that research has shown the number of fraudulent families—migrants traveling with children who were not their own—was fewer than 1% of cases. Nawaz also accused Nielsen of previously misrepresenting the extent of the family separations and the degree to which her memo had facilitated those.

In defending the Trump administration’s border policies, Nielsen repeatedly cited the challenge of using laws written in another era to address new patterns of migration.

“The rules, the laws, the facilities were all built during a time when the vast majority of people coming across the border were single males, actually from Mexico,” Nielsen said, claiming that most border apprehensions now involve families and people from countries like Guatemala.

Nielsen also said her department took a month after the Justice Department invoked the zero tolerance measure in order to enforce the law “in the most compassionate way possible.” She claimed her staff never informed her of the potential for children to be traumatized by the separation policy.

Nielsen resigned from as Homeland Security Secretary in April following months of public criticism from President Trump. She described her decision to leave as the result of “lots of things” and that her goal of “speaking truth to power” was no longer being achieved.

Nielsen took exception with Nawaz saying her recent appointment as a White House adviser means she had rejoined the administration. Nielsen noted she was serving as an unpaid advisor, like other CEOs and countered by asking, “Are you telling every CEO in here that they should never ever advise the government on how to make something work?” The comment was met with applause from the conference audience. At the conclusion of the interview, Nielsen briefly addressed her current work promoting cyber-security for elections.

Nielsen’s appearance at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women’s summit drew criticism on social media and led other invitees, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, singer and songwriter Brandi Carlile, and filmmaker dream hampton to withdraw from the event in protest.

In introducing Nielsen, Fortune editor-in-chief Clifton Leaf acknowledged the controversy but noted that asking tough questions about public policy has been part of Fortune’s mission for 90 years, and that leaders must be prepared to engage in conversations with people they vehemently disagree with.

More must-read stories from Fortune’s MPW Summit:

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—How to avoid the biggest ‘decision trap’ in business
—Peloton’s CFO has “so much sympathy” for WeWork
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