Newly confirmed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen sounded right at home among the Trump administration’s immigration hawks on Tuesday, calling for major policy changes during one of her first public addresses as DHS chief.
Appearing alongside Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Baltimore, she laid out several border security priorities for the department in the wake of another terrorist attack in New York City, but it was her remarks on structural immigration reform that stood out.
Nielsen backed two significant changes to the U.S. immigration system — curtailing family-based immigration and doing away with the diversity visa lottery.
The reforms are needed to “better support our economy and assimilate immigrants,” Nielsen said, echoing the arguments of conservative immigration reformers in Congress and President Donald Trump himself.
Long the objects of conservatives’ scorn, family-based immigration and the diversity visa lottery have become the subjects of national debate after two terror attacks in New York in the span of three months. The alleged perpetrators of both attacks migrated to the U.S. through the diversity visa lottery, in one case as a direct recipient and in the other as the relative of a diversity visa winner.
The Trump administration has characterized both attacks as the consequence of an immigration system that allows people to move to the U.S. based on extended family ties, or in the case of the diversity visa, on the results of a random drawing. On Monday, the administration urged Congress to “end chain migration,” suggesting the policy of extended family immigration was partly to blame for the latest attack.
“I think that the president is certainly concerned that Congress, particularly Democrats, have failed to take action in some places where we feel we could have prevented this,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters. “Specifically, the president’s policy has called for an end to chain migration. And if that had been in place, that would have prevented this individual from coming to the United States.”
Nielsen’s remarks Tuesday morning are likely to assuage, for now, some conservative immigration reformers who have expressed concern about her previous remarks on amnesty for DACA recipients and the need for the border wall. Nielsen has also been criticized for her connections to homeland security officials in the George W. Bush administration, such as Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, who pushed for amnesty while in office and were prominent members of the “Never Trump” contingent.
In her first press conference as DHS chief, though, Nielsen sounded like a disciple of Sessions’, the administration’s leading immigration hawk. She backed the border wall, saying it was needed to “stem the tide of illegal crossings,” and called on Congress to tighten rules on asylum claims and the resettlement of so-called unaccompanied children.
Nielsen also joined Sessions in connecting the immigration system to the spate of gruesome killings by MS-13, which has seen a resurgence in several U.S. metro areas including Boston, Long Island and Washington, D.C. The transnational gang has been able to thrive, she said, in part because it can recruit young illegal immigrants who have been resettled in the interior of the country by U.S. authorities.
The growth of MS-13 is a “deadly consequence of unsecured borders and failed immigration policies,” Nielsen said.
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