Homeland Security secretary nominee Kirstjen Nielsen cruised through her appearance before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee Wednesday, answering questions on a wide range of security-related issues with very little difficulty.
A former Department of Homeland Security senior official and the current White House deputy chief of staff, Nielsen brings years of government experience that seemed to impress even Democratic lawmakers. But some of Nielsen’s responses to senators’ questions had immigration hard-liners questioning if she was the best candidate to carry out the Trump administration’s tough immigration enforcement policies.
One point of contention followed from Nielsen’s answer to a question about recipients of the now-cancelled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Nielsen told senators that the U.S. government bears responsibility for finding a long-term fix for illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as young people.
“I believe that we must and we owe it to them to find a permanent solution,” she said.
That response caused a bit of consternation for conservative immigration reformers, who generally believe the government owes Americans the strict enforcement of immigration laws first, while making DACA amnesty a secondary consideration at best.
Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Nielsen’s use of the term “owe” in the context of DACA recipients feeds a sense of “entitlement” that “turns off even sympathetic listeners.” Krikorian has repeatedly argued that a legislative amnesty for DACA recipients should be paired with deeper reforms to the immigration system, such as reductions in chain migration and the mandatory use of e-Verify.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) also criticized Nielsen’s remarks on DACA, taking issue with the idea that the so-called “Dreamers” are owed amnesty before stricter immigration enforcement policies are put in place.
“Why do we owe them an amnesty?” FAIR president Dan Stein asked Wednesday in a video commentary. “This is not the appropriate response. The only proper response, what we want to hear from the homeland security secretary is ‘Are you going to carry out the law congress has passed faithfully, and with fidelity to the legislative intent?'”
In her pre-hearing questionnaire, Nielsen did indicate that she would work with lawmakers to develop a solution the DACA problem that also includes stricter border security and interior enforcement.
“If confirmed, I will stand ready to work with Congress to provide any technical assistance needed towards a permanent, legal solution and towards enacting measures that enhance border security, interior enforcement, and our immigration system generally,” she wrote, according to Politco.
If Nielsen becomes DHS secretary, her first significant immigration policy decision will likely be whether to extend a reprieve from deportation to hundreds of thousands of Central American and Haitian nationals living in the U.S. with temporary protected status (TPS). Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke terminated TPS protections for Nicaragua earlier this week, but left the designation in place for 57,000 Hondurans. A decision on 50,000 Haitians and about 200,000 El Salvadorans is also due in the coming months.
In the case of Central American countries with TPS, immigration hawks have long argued the designation has become a permanent immigration benefit with little relation to the events that prompted it in the first place. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly appeared to share that sentiment this summer when he granted a six-month extension of TPS to Haiti, saying that Haitian nationals in the U.S. should use the grace period to “start thinking about returning.”
Kelly, who was Nielsen’s biggest advocate for the top DHS job, unsuccessfully pressured Duke to terminate TPS for Honduras, reports The Washington Post. That responsibility now falls to Duke’s successor, one of several politically fraught TPS decisions she will have to make in the first months of her tenure.
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