Leading Democrats from California called for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to resign on Monday, citing the department's controversial practice of separating immigrant families caught trying to cross the southern border.
The Trump administration disclosed Monday that more than 2,300 immigrant children have been taken from their parents since May 9, shortly after Attorney General Jeff Sessions launched a "zero tolerance" policy for those caught trying to cross the border illegally. As a result, the Homeland Security Department has ratcheted up criminal prosecutions of adult border crossers, removing any children traveling with them and detaining them separately. That's a shift from previous policy, when parents were typically detained with their children, temporarily, then released to await a hearing in immigration court.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was asked about the Homeland Security secretary during a press conference in San Diego Monday, following a visit to immigrant detention facilities.
"I think she should resign," Pelosi said.
That echoed a statement from California Sen. Kamala Harris earlier Monday demanding Nielsen step down. "“The government should be in the business of keeping families together, not tearing them apart," the Democratic senator said. "And the government should have a commitment to transparency and accountability. Under Secretary Nielsen’s tenure, the Department of Homeland Security has a track record of neither."
Harris cited, in particular, Nielsen's claim on Twitter Sunday evening denying that the Homeland Security Department had a policy of separating families at the border. She remained defiant Monday during remarks at the National Sheriffs' Association annual conference. "We will not apologize for the job we do or for the job law enforcement does," she said. "Illegal actions have and must have consequences. No more free passes, no more get out of jail free cards."
Harris also complained in her statement that the department has "routinely failed to provide complete answers to questions from me and my colleagues" on the number of children separated from their parents at the border and the protocol for carrying out such separations.
Harris called Nielsen's lack of transparency "disqualifying."
Pelosi put most of the blame for the separation policy on President Trump. Asked about Nielsen's comments implying that undocumented immigrants were using children as a "get-out-of-jail-free card," Pelosi responded, "That’s exactly what the president of the United States is doing, he’s using these children to advance a bad policy."
"Rather than taking responsibility for their actions, and some of them are, (like) the attorney general and the secretary of homeland security, ... the president says, 'it's not my fault, I didn't do it,'" Pelosi continued. "No, you did do it."
Pelosi was joined at the press conference in San Diego by ten other Democrats from California, including Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno, and a handful of other lawmakers. The delegation visited Casa San Diego, a facility run by the Department of Health and Human Services in El Cajon, Calif. that houses immigrant children caught crossing the border with family members or alone. Many are fleeing violence in Central America and are hoping to apply for asylum in the United States.
The stories of babies ripped from the arms of their mothers, scenes of jail-like facilities, and reports of plans to house the growing number of children in tent cities have drawn an increasingly sharp public outcry over the last week.
Democrats have been leading the charge. All 49 Senate Democrats are now sponsoring California Sen. Dianne Feinstein's legislation to bar family separation. Now, some Republicans are speaking out, as well.
“The substantial increase of minors at our southern border is both a humanitarian and national security crisis. While we must work towards a solution that reduces the occurrence of illegal border crossings, it is unacceptable to separate young children from their parents," Republican Rep. David Valadao of Hanford said in a statement to McClatchy.
Valadao and a number of other House Republicans are pushing the party to pass an immigration bill later this week that would require the government to keep detained children with at least one of their parents, a tacit rejection of the Trump policy. "This is exactly why passage of a compromise solution, such as that being discussed in Congress right now, is absolutely necessary," Valadao said.
Turlock Rep. Jeff Denham, another leading backer of the House bill, expressed hope in a statement to the Washington Post on Friday that it would fix the family separation crisis.
The president however, does not appear to be backing away from the "zero tolerance" policy, after complaining for months about the country's practice of "catch and release" for immigrants crossing the border illegally.
On Monday Trump blamed child separation on "horrible laws," as well as Democrats, who he complained were "obstructing" immigration legislation.
"What's happening is so sad, is so sad," the president said. "And it can be taken care of quickly, beautifully, and we'll have safety." But in the meantime, he said, "The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility."
Kate Irby contributed to this report.