We May Miss Kirstjen Nielsen When She’s Gone

The outgoing homeland security chief set a new standard for nativist cruelty. Her successor could very well exceed it.

Kirstjen Nielsen
Kirstjen Nielsen testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee on March 6.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Kirstjen Nielsen’s tenure as homeland security secretary will be remembered as a new standard for nativist viciousness. Nielsen executed the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on the border. She began implementing the separation program that tore thousands of migrant children from their families. The government lost track of at least 1,500 children under her watch. She oversaw punitive operations along the southern border that included the tear-gassing of hundreds of desperate would-be refugees near the San Ysidro border crossing. Seven-year-old Jakelin Caal died in U.S. custody during her term. Nielsen also implemented the controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy that denies asylum-seekers the possibility to wait for the resolution of their application process in the United States, instead sending them back across the border, where they face threats and growing resentment.

Herself a descendant of Danish immigrants, Nielsen not only implemented Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda—she defended it with zeal. She declined to apologize for the evidently brutal consequences of the administration’s family separation policy and dutifully went along with Trump’s declaration of a supposed “national emergency” on the border. Nielsen even tried to mimic her boss’s immoral equivocation during the Charlottesville white supremacist rally in 2017. “It’s not that one side was right and one side was wrong,” Nielsen said.

And yet, in a fine example of just how deep the Trump administration has fallen down into its nativist sunken place, Nielsen, a blatant enabler of modern cruelty, will be missed.

For Mexico, Trump’s bête noire, Nielsen’s departure signals an abrupt and wearisome interruption in the painstaking development of a functioning relationship. Nielsen had led negotiations with both Marcelo Ebrard, secretary of foreign affairs, and the country’s influential secretary of the interior, Olga Sánchez Cordero, who met with Nielsen frequently.

“She was always kind and courteous to me,” Sánchez Cordero told me. Still, the relationship between the two wasn’t always simple. “Last time we saw each other, she did question me over the number of migrants that had been detained at the border,” Sánchez Cordero recalled. According to Sánchez Cordero, Nielsen told her that U.S. authorities expected that the number of migrants crossing in “irregular fashion” would “climb up to 100,000 by the end of March,” and that this was causing “serious problems” for the White House.

Nielsen also mentioned the growing problem of shelters along the border reaching capacity as well as what the DHS secretary vaguely referred to as the “rejection among the local population” of potential refugees on the U.S. side of the border. Sánchez Cordero said she told a demanding Nielsen that Mexico would “try to normalize the access of every person entering Mexico because it’s also a national security issue for us.”

Still, Sánchez Cordero told me she and Nielsen were starting to build a working relationship, one that could now be derailed if President Donald Trump chooses an immigration hard-liner as Mexico’s next interlocutor. When I asked Sánchez Cordero whether she was worried by the possibility of Trump naming a more severe nativist ideologue as DHS head, she immediately rejected any concerns. “This is not about people but about policy,” she told me, “We will work with whomever they choose.” Foreign Secretary Ebrard, a bespectacled man of laconic style, agrees. In a recent interview with Spanish newspaper El País, Ebrard praised acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan. “He’s a person we know well,” said Ebrard. “If he stays, I believe we will have a closer dialogue between the two countries.”

Both Mexican officials might be indulging in wishful thinking.

Policy matters, but people who enact it might matter even more. The nature of Nielsen’s resignation—she left after Trump’s immigration demands became increasingly outrageous and perhaps even illegal—should be read as a warning: Something much worse might soon emerge from Trump’s nativist coterie.

It appears unlikely Trump will settle on someone like McAleenan, despite the acting director’s willingness to enact the White House’s border clampdown. If even Nielsen proved to be too much of a moderate for Trump’s ruthless taste, the president will likely look at a rabid nativist ideologue to continue pursuing his anti-immigrant fantasies. Whether it be White House adviser and de facto immigration czar Stephen Miller himself (who, as Max Boot eloquently argues, should emerge and formally take the throne he’s also been running from the shadows) or one of Miller’s anti-immigrant comrades, like the equally macabre Kris Kobach, Trump’s radicalization of immigration policy will complicate the possible resolution of the growing humanitarian crisis from Central America and further tangle the relationship with Mexico’s new government.

Things can surely get worse.