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Migration Policy Institute President Reacts To Resignation Of Kirstjen Nielsen From DHS

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

From the moment he launched his campaign, President Trump has promised to crack down on illegal immigration. And for the last 16 months, Kirstjen Nielsen has been responsible for implementing that vision as secretary of Homeland Security. Yesterday she submitted her resignation. She says she will serve through Wednesday. And she spoke to reporters outside her home today.

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KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: I share the president's goal of securing the border. I will continue to support all efforts to address the humanitarian and security crisis on the border. And other than that, I'm on my way to keep doing what I can for the next few days.

SHAPIRO: Of course Homeland Security does more than just immigration, but since this was President Trump's top priority, it also became a major focus for the department. In another part of the program, we'll hear about where the department is headed after Nielsen. Right now we're going to talk about the policies she implemented at the Mexico border and the situation she leaves behind.

Andrew Selee is president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ANDREW SELEE: It's great to be with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: The big headlines from Nielsen's tenure seem to be the policies of family separation and zero tolerance. What did those phrases actually mean under Secretary Nielsen? How'd the policies play out?

SELEE: What happened during a period of a time last year is that they were really trying to prosecute anyone who crossed the border illegally, give them a criminal conviction and, in doing so, were separating children from parents and putting them into HHS custody.

SHAPIRO: HHS - that's the Department of Health and Human Services.

SELEE: Right. This proved to be very unpopular obviously. The notion of separating children from parents was something that most Americans, according to polls, really couldn't stomach. And it also received some legal challenges. And the administration abandoned it a few weeks into the policy, but it certainly left a large mark.

SHAPIRO: Is it totally done? Are there children who still have not been reunited with their parents?

SELEE: There are still children that haven't been reunited. There was not much record keeping to keep track of which parents and which children went together. And unfortunately there still are children who haven't been reunited. And there are - there at least is some belief out there that there's still some separation happening at least in cases where they're not certain of parentage.

SHAPIRO: What about other parts of immigration policy? What have been the most notable changes from the Trump administration during Nielsen's tenure?

SELEE: Well, in addition to family separation, which was obviously the most visible policy, there was an attempt to send asylum-seekers - Central American asylum-seekers back to Mexico to wait for their hearings. That was just blocked by a court today in California. There was an attempt to keep people from applying for asylum between ports of entry that was blocked by a court a few months back. And there is something ongoing called metering where there's only a certain number of slots each day that allow people to apply for asylum at ports of entry. These are all ways of making it hard for people to apply for asylum at the border. But the tendency has seemed to be to a little bit overshoot policy objectives in trying to get tough at the border.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean by tendency to overshoot? Give us an example.

SELEE: The Trump administration has tried to do things that seem really tough but are really quick fixes that don't fix the systematic problem - so trying to, you know, prohibit access to the asylum system between ports of entry or sending people back to Mexico when in fact what you need to do is fix the asylum system itself. There is a bigger reform that's needed that you could probably get Republicans and Democrats onboard to do, but they keep going for quick fixes that sound tough.

SHAPIRO: There's been some reporting suggesting that Nielsen pushed back on some of President Trump's most hardline ideas on immigration. Is there evidence that that's true?

SELEE: I think that probably is true. I mean, I think there's a sense that Secretary Nielsen really is a policy person herself. And she was trying to figure out answers to some of the questions of how you deal with illegal immigration, how you deal with the asylum system. The president may not have liked all of her pushback and all of her ideas. Ultimately she was willing to implement most of the policies the president wanted. But she did seem to stand her ground on other policy areas that may not have met favor at the White House.

SHAPIRO: As we heard, Nielsen describes the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border as a humanitarian and security crisis. She has said the system is in freefall. Do you think that assessment is accurate?

SELEE: I mean, the system we have at the border to deal with unauthorized migration and asylum-seekers wasn't set up for this migration we're seeing of families of Central Americans and of asylum - large numbers of people seeking asylum. So our asylum system is overwhelmed, and we have not been able to change the institutional structure to respond to this. Is it a national crisis - probably not. But is it a humanitarian crisis - definitely. This is a time where reasonable people should be getting together and trying to figure out what makes the most sense.

SHAPIRO: Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, thanks a lot.

SELEE: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.