Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen said this week that federal immigration officers can strike fear in local immigrant communities, in what her own officers and agents said was an early misstep for the new department chief.
Making her first visit to the southwestern border since being confirmed to the job last week, Ms. Nielsen began to lay out her own priorities on immigration, praising Texas for a new law punishing sanctuary cities and urging other states to follow Texas’ lead.
On Wednesday, at a section of existing border fence in Hidalgo, Texas, the secretary warned of another surge of illegal crossers, boosted President Trump’s plans for a border wall and called for all illegal immigrants with criminal records to be held in custody while they await deportation, rather than being released into communities.
Adopting a strict enforcement posture, she also called for an end to the diversity visa lottery and limits to chain migration, said the asylum system is being abused by undeserving illegal immigrants, demanded states and localities drop their sanctuary policies, and asked Congress to officially sanction immigration detainers so local jurisdictions would have to hold illegal immigrants for pickup.
“We are going to make it very, very difficult to remain here unlawfully,” she said.
But her comments on the thousands of federal law enforcement officers and agents who work for her struck an off note.
In responding to a question at a press conference in Austin on Tuesday about sanctuary city defenders who say assisting in deportations makes localities less safe, Ms. Nielsen said her officers and agents can sow fear.
“I think occasionally it’s the presence, or increased presence, of federal law enforcement that can cause that fear. And that’s part of what we’re trying to reduce. It’s unnecessary,” she said.
She said if communities would agree to cooperate, particularly in turning over illegal immigrants in their prisons or jails, it would mean U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers wouldn’t have to go into the communities so often.
“It’s much safer for both our agents to go in and take the illegal aliens from the jails, but it also eliminates the need to go out into the communities to search for them,” she said.
Brandon Judd, a Border Patrol agent and head of the National Border Patrol Council, said Ms. Nielsen’s remarks sent a wrong message to her employees.
“When did we start fearing our law enforcement in this country?” he said. “If you’re not breaking the law, what is there to fear?
“I’m very disappointed that Secretary Nielson would say that federal agents cause fear in communities. If anything, she should have said federal agents bring a sense of safety to our communities, especially those that willfully follow the laws of this great nation,” he said.
Chris Crane, an ICE officer and president of the National ICE Council, also said he was troubled.
“To suggest that law enforcement officers are responsible for fear among those who violate our nation’s laws is the wrong answer. As is any suggestion that ICE officers shouldn’t be actively out on the streets enforcing the law,” he said. “I’m hoping the secretary will clarify her comments if she meant something else.”
Ms. Nielsen came to the secretary’s job an enigma to activists on both sides of the immigration issue, and her confirmation hearing did little to answer questions about her policies.
During her first week on the job, though, she has aligned herself with the strict enforcement approach advocated by President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In Austin on Tuesday, she praised a group of Texas sheriffs who agreed to sign up for the 287(g) program allowing their deputies to help enforce immigration laws.
She also urged other states to adopt a law similar to Texas’ SB4, which punishes local elected officials and police chiefs who try to carry out sanctuary policies.
Ms. Nielsen said sanctuary policies are dangerous for communities and for law enforcement because they mean criminals are released back onto the streets.
She said that means deportation officers have to go out into communities to find those people, and if officers run across other illegal immigrants along the way, they will put them under arrest as well.
“Under this administration, they will no longer look the other way,” she said.
Several immigrant rights advocates who opposed Ms. Nielsen’s nomination declined to comment on the secretary’s performance after a week on the job.
They said their focus is on a host of big deadlines looming, such as the phaseout of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals deportation amnesty and an upcoming decision on hundreds of thousands of citizens of El Salvador living in the U.S. under temporary protected status.
One immigration analyst who backs tighter enforcement said Ms. Nielsen delivered “a very strong, spot-on statement” against sanctuary cities and praised her call for stripping federal funding from such jurisdictions.
But Mr. Judd said Ms. Nielsen needed to be careful in her language after saying federal law enforcement is responsible for fear.
“Whether she misspoke or not, as the secretary, she has to be prepared for tough questions, and to perpetuate the fear narrative from her office to me is just flat-out wrong, and it does nothing to stop the politicizing of the illegal immigration debate,” he said.
A Homeland Security Department official said Ms. Nielsen in her comments was conveying her concern over sanctuary cities because they are the ones forcing federal law enforcement to go into the communities.
“Sanctuary cities are the root cause of any perceived fear in immigrant communities cited by anti-immigration-enforcement advocates and hinder law enforcement from efficiently doing their jobs,” the department official said. “She wants immigration enforcement to take place in jails, not in people’s homes.”
Rosemary Jenks, government relations manager at NumbersUSA, which backs stricter immigration enforcement, said Ms. Nielsen’s comment was a red flag for someone at the top of Homeland Security.
“She does not have the mindset of a law enforcement official,” Ms. Jenks said.