As of last December, there are more than 600 children who have spent the past several years without their parents, separated beginning in 2017 by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at the border, which ramped up in earnest in 2018. We’re still learning new details about how Donald Trump’s administration—including enforcers like then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen—carried out this effort in cruelty even now. (On Thursday, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General released a report that clarified then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s instrumental role in pushing for families to be separated. “We need to take children away,” he reportedly stated at one point.)
The OIG report also makes clear in case there was any confusion (there shouldn’t be) that Nielsen earned her reputation as the face of family separation. If Stephen Miller was the architect—reportedly stating at one meeting, “If we don’t enforce this, it is the end of our country as we know it”—and Sessions and Trump were the biggest boosters for breaking families apart, then Nielsen was in some ways the Trump administration’s most craven enabler. She was reluctant to acknowledge that families were even being separated—and by extension, her own role in it—even as she participated in planning meetings and ordered DHS agencies to carry it out. Nielsen is emblematic of a particularly despicable type of Trump administration official—those who dutifully enacted the bureaucracy of evil. One telling detail in the recent DOJ report? Nielsen reportedly backed out of announcing the policy with Sessions, the excuse being that it was necessary “to protect Secretary Nielsen from bearing the wrath of the policy.”
That would prove impossible, at least socially. Nielsen was dogged by activists who refused to let her off the hook, one evening memorably having her dinner, and at a Mexican restaurant no less, disrupted by protesters. “I am not a racist. Nobody believes families should be separated,” Nielsen reportedly told the Congressional Hispanic Congress in the fall of 2018. After she resigned as DHS Secretary in 2019, she attempted to go on a redemption tour, astonishingly claiming that she “spoke truth to power from the very beginning” at one event that misguidedly gave her a platform. “There were a lot of things that, there were those in the administration who thought that we should do, and just as I spoke truth to power from the very beginning, it became clear that saying no, and refusing to do it myself was not going to be enough, so it was time for me to offer my resignation,” Nielsen said.
Her replacement, Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, had no misgivings whatsoever about enacting the cruelest of Trump’s wishes—pushing forward a dramatic curtailing and destruction of our country’s asylum policy, which has forced thousands to live in dangerous tent cities along the U.S./Mexico border; attempting to limit the DACA program for young undocumented immigrants; and generally eagerly implementing the Trump administration’s violent agenda. Wolf, who likely wasn’t even legally appointed to become the acting head of DHS, resigned on Monday, a cowardly move if there ever was one. As one DHS official told BuzzFeed News, “Chad Wolf gave voice to the worst impulses of this administration, empowered the Department’s most punitive and small-minded people, and leaves DHS significantly worse than he found it.”
Nielsen is now reportedly doing just fine—she’s advising the Australian government on cybersecurity issues and is on a whole slew of advisory boards working with the federal government. As for Wolf, I’m sure he’ll be fine too. But when I imagine what just desserts for the duo might look like, I’d probably start by first endowing them with an actual conscience and some basic human decency and then lock them in a room, a video of testimonies by people whose lives they’ve altered forever playing on an endless loop.