Perhaps I am being sexist, but I expect more from women than I do from men. Throughout my life, I have been blessed to have women around me who combined great kindness, compassion and sensitivity with equally great strength, intelligence and sound moral judgment. And, thanks to them, I have always seen women as embodying the best the human race has to offer.
Maybe that is why my reaction to the cruelty demonstrated by former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen hit me as hard as it did. Frankly, had a male like Stephen Miller carried out the despicable and cruel policies separating already traumatized children from their mothers, I undoubtedly would have been just as angered, just as appalled by the harshness and cruelty shown by the government that was once idealized by Canadian radio personality Gordon Sinclair for the “…5,000 times when the Americans raced to the help of other people in trouble.”
But the fact a woman carried out such a horrible plan, somehow made it seem even worse to me, perhaps because it belied a faith I’ve always had that a world run by women would be less cruel and much more compassionate than this one run by men. History, after all, tells us men have committed the greatest crimes against humanity, so I’ve become conditioned, I suppose, to expect that sort of thing to come from my gender. When depravity, brutality and ruthlessness is inflicted upon the weak and helpless, to my shame as a man, I expect to see a cruel male face behind those despicable acts, not one like Secretary Nielsen’s.
But it was a woman’s face that explained to our nation why the White House believed it was necessary and just to take children, including infants, from their mothers and detain them separately. It was a woman’s voice that explained the policy and that condemned those who opposed it as being soft on crime and, somehow, unpatriotic for opposing a practice most Americans found appalling and unnecessarily cruel.
And while it is true that Ms. Nielsen wasn’t the author of the policy, like an obedient soldier of an immoral army, she carried it out. With vigor and passion.
“We will not apologize for the job we do or for the job law enforcement does for doing the job that the American people expect us to do,” she boasted during a speech she gave to the National Sheriffs Association last year. “Illegal actions have and must have consequences. No more free passes, no more get out of jail free cards.”
No more “free passes,” no more “get out a jail free cards” not even for children, innocent victims fleeing cruel oppression and brutal violence in their home country, said the secretary. Not even for young boys and girls who had no choice in their parent’s decision to leave their homes and, like the Pilgrims who landed here hundreds of years ago, come to this country without the legal approval of the indigenous people living here.
No, in Ms. Nielsen’s world, a “free pass” would be a sign of weakness and a “get out of jail card” an invitation for others to commit the same offense of wanting a better life for one’s children, of not allowing anything, including a border drawn in the sand to stand in one’s way. So, in a nation where parents do all they can for their children, some even going as far as breaking laws to give their children a shot at a better future, the head of Homeland Security planted her flag firmly in the soil for a policy she knew was widely unpopular and seen by most Americans as deeply immoral.
How do we know she knew the child separation policy, opposed by two-thirds of Americans, was a very bad idea, one likely to be met with outrage by the people she served? Because, as New York Times correspondent Maggie Haberman reported the day she resigned, one of the reason Ms. Nielsen stayed in the post as long as she did, one of the reasons she never made good on reported threats to quit after suffering a “dressing down” by the president in 2018, was “she was aware how awful life would/will be for her on the outside after defending [President Trump’s] policies for a long time (sic).”
Secretary Nielsen knew that unpopular actions seen as immoral must have consequences and that there would be no “free pass” for her, no “get out of jail free card” for her with the American people ashamed of their government’s policy towards the weakest, most vulnerable and helpless people – children – in our care. It didn’t take leftist protestors shouting “If kids can’t eat in peace, you can’t eat in peace” at Secretary Nielsen as she tried to have dinner in, of all places, a Mexican restaurant in D.C. last June for her to know that by defending family separation she was becoming one of the most unpopular government officials in recent American history. Ten minutes later, as protestors watched her climb into her security detail’s SUV and drive off, she also knew that her days of relative anonymity were over. Her’s was now the face Americans would remember when they saw images of sobbing children in American detention camps.
No free Passes for kids, no free Pass for Nielsen
While Ms. Nielsen wasn’t the architect of the child separation policy of the Trump Administration, while she didn’t choose the path the White House took on illegal immigration any more than the children she separated from their parents chose the paths their families took to come to America, she made the conscious decision to implement and defend that policy. As an adult with real power and the responsibility to defend the laws, honor and reputation of this nation, she chose to back a widely unpopular policy in deference to a president she understood was well known for tossing his own people under a bus when it suited him. And she did this, it appears, in contradiction to her own thinking, her own history as a career bureaucrat in Washington who, it seems from her writings and testimony, had a much more liberal view of immigration in the past before she came to work for the Trump Administration.
In fact, the far right-wing press railed against her nomination as DHS secretary, calling her an “open borders zealot” and pointing to a 2016 report she authored for the World Economic Forum as chair of a committee on refugees and immigrants. As Breitbart News told readers in 2016, “Nielsen’s pro-mass migration committee included a representative for Citigroup, one of the largest multinational banks in the world. Not only does Citigroup have a record of pushing mass immigration to the U.S., but the world bank has openly opposed Trump’s pro-American immigration agenda.”
The Daily Caller went on to claim:
Nielsen’s nomination to head DHS has been praised by the cheap foreign labor lobby, open borders advocates, and the Washington, D.C. national security establishment which allied itself with the failed “Never Trump” movement during the 2016 presidential election.
In a pre-hearing questionnaire, obtained by Breitbart News, Nielsen explained how she would be ‘ready to work with Congress’ on a plan to give amnesty to the nearly 800,000 DACA illegal aliens in the U.S.
Additionally, Breitbart News reported on Nielsen’s involvement with the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when more than 30,000 illegal aliens and foreign workers were able to come to the U.S. to take American blue-collar jobs that those devastated by the natural disaster had hoped to get.
Reputation Resurrection Tour
So, why did Ms. Nielsen choose to back a policy it appears she may not have supported in the first place? If you listen to what she is pitching as part of what can only be described as a Reputation Resurrection Tour, the reason is she was fighting against even worse excesses coming from the Oval Office and from in-favor Trump advisor and white nationalist Stephen Miller.
Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported “unsung heroes” in Secretary Nielsen’s department fought against plans to bus thousands of illegal immigrants, particularly those thought to be criminals, to cities across America, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi‘s San Francisco, just before the November midterm elections. This plan, according to the Post, was the brainchild of Stephen Miller and designed to punish members of Congress who stood up against the president’s harsh immigration policies.
Ms. Nielsen, since her forced resignation, has peddled her department’s opposition to Mr. Miller’s plan as an example of one of many times people under her leadership stood up against Trump Administration excesses, citing legal obstacles, not moral ones, to oppose unpalatable proposals by the president’s advisers. As GQ magazine put it, the story is part of her attempt to reframe her role as secretary of DHS in a more humane light.
Naturally, the story has become part of erstwhile Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s redemption tour, as CNN reports that Trump ‘personally pushed’ her to implement the plan, and she ‘resisted’ until her legal team was able to produce an analysis that killed it. The implication is that Nielsen, who helmed the administration’s successful efforts to take immigrant infants and children from their parents and lock them away in cages, is nonetheless deserving of gratitude, because scuttling the administration’s unsuccessful efforts to spite its enemies by importing immigrant prisoners constitutes evidence of her sound moral compass.
There is a telling distinction in the rationales on which Nielsen relies when making hard choices: Forcibly separating families at the border was legal, and therefore an acceptable thing for her to do. Shipping desperate asylum seekers from the border to faraway Democratic cities, according to the attorneys with whom DHS happened to consult on the matter, was not legal, and therefore she could not carry out any attendant orders in good conscience.
Among bad people seeking absolution for their malevolence, citing to evidence of their legal compliance is a time-honored rhetorical strategy. Its effect is to quietly dispense with any obligation to exercise independent judgment, and to consider whether a given course of action might be defensible in any place other than a court of law. Such helpless appeals to authority are a perfect crutch for those who know something is wrong, but cannot summon the courage to say so. The cruelty the Trump administration is willing to inflict on immigrants is limited only by its desire to avoid bad press, its reluctance to spend taxpayer dollars, and its ability to search out a lawyer who will give their latest demented nightmare plan the coveted all-clear.
In other words, Secretary Nielsen failed to stand up against an immoral, cruel and widely opposed policy promoted by the president because it met legal muster and she, as one of the most important voices in government, lacked the courage and moral strength to say “no.” While that might make good career sense in an administration less willing to eat its own than this one, it isn’t the sort of conduct the American people expect from their leaders. We expect our leaders to do what is right for our country, not what is best for their careers in politics.
She can serve, however, as an example to others in this administration facing situations similar to hers. As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote last week how the private sector and universities greet Ms. Nielsen could be a valuable lesson for those still in the administration contemplating the impact compromising their sense of right and wrong, their sense of morality, might have on their future career prospects.
What happens to Nielsen now can serve as an example to other people in the administration as they decide whether to just follow orders. By this, I don’t mean that people should scream at Nielsen in restaurants. Rather, those horrified by family separation should do whatever they can to deny Nielsen the sort of cushy corporate landing or prestigious academic appointment once customary for ex-administration officials. The fact that she evidently didn’t go as far as an erratic and out-of-control Trump wanted is immaterial; she should be a pariah for going as far as she did.