Meet Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security chief at the center of the controversy over family separations at the US-Mexico border

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty ImagesThis is how Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen became the villain of Trump’s immigration crisis.

Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen has become the face of the Trump administration’s controversial “zero tolerance” immigration policy, making her a divisive figure in the process.

Nielsen was criticised after claiming the policy was not the catalyst for the separation of migrant families at the US-Mexico border, especially after she then defended the detainment of migrant children who’d been taken from their parents or guardians.

According to Homeland Security numbers, roughly 2,000 migrant children have been separated from their families in a recent six week period.

Nielsen has assured the public these children are being well taken care of, but that hasn’t stopped protesters from targeting her over the Trump administration’s immigration policies – and calling for her resignation.

Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order he claimed would end the separation of children from their parents or guardians at the border.

But immigration lawyers, among others, have criticised the language of the order and claim it still offers the federal government wiggle room to separate families.

As the immigration crisis and the backlash surrounding it continue, here’s a look at Nielsen’s history and how she rose to become Homeland security chief and the poster-child of the zero-tolerance policy:


Kirstjen Nielsen was born on May 14, 1972 in Colorado. But she grew up in Florida, where she ran cross-country, played soccer, and was student body president.

Source: UVA Law


Nielsen’s parents, Phyllis Michele Nielsen and James McHenry Nielsen, were both Army doctors. Her mother passed away in 2011, but her father is still alive and attended her swearing-in as Department of Homeland Security secretary.

Source: Heavy.com


Nielsen thought she might want to become a diplomat and attended Georgetown University’s school of foreign service and studied abroad in Japan. She then worked for Sen. Connie Mack of Florida for two years before heading to law school at the University of Virginia.

Source: UVA Law


Nielsen worked for a Dallas law firm for a short period before joining George W. Bush’s administration in his first term.

Sources: UVA Law, Newsweek


By 2005, she was 33, and was the senior director for prevention, preparedness, and response at the White House Homeland Security Council. There, she was right at the center of the Bush administration’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.

Source: Washington Post


The team she oversaw was subsequently criticised for its “passive and clumsy” response.

Source: Washington Post


After leaving the Bush administration, Nielsen went to the private sector before joining the Trump’s Department of Homeland Security as John Kelly’s chief of staff in 2017. She gained a reputation as a “no-nonsense” aide to Kelly while he served as secretary.

Source: Newsweek


After Kelly became Trump’s chief of staff, Nielsen joined him as his deputy. When Trump announced Nielsen would succeed Kelly as secretary of Homeland Security, it reportedly came as a shock to many staffers.

Source: Axios


Within the department and at the White House, she apparently wasn’t very popular due to her “sharp-elbowed approach to doing business.”

Source: Axios


Despite opposition from Democrats in the Senate, Nielsen was confirmed with a 62-37 vote and sworn in as Homeland Security chief in early December 2017.

Sources: Business Insider, DHS.gov


One of Nielsen’s first big public moments came after Trump characterised Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” in a meeting she attended. Trump also reportedly complimented Norway during the meeting. In January, Nielsen appeared before the Senate and was asked if Norway is a predominately white country. She replied that she “actually” didn’t know.

Source: NY Mag


Nielsen has become a particularly controversial figure in relation to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy regarding illegal border crossings.

Source: Business Insider


The Homeland Security chief on June 17 tweeted: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.” This tweet was promptly criticised as many felt she was denying the “zero tolerance” policy was leading to the unprecedented rate of family separations at the border.

TwitterA tweet from Nielsen on the Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy.

Sources: Twitter,Business Insider


One day later, after denying the “zero tolerance” policy was separating families, Nielsen attempted to assure the public the migrant children who’d be taken from their families were being “very well taken care of.” She added, “Don’t believe the press.”

Source: Business Insider


Nielsen also said her department would “not apologise doing for our job,” adding, “This administration has a simple message: If you cross the border illegally, we will prosecute you.”

Source: Business Insider


Nielsen has stood by Trump amid the strong backlash against the separation policy, often blaming Democrats for what’s occurring and calling on Congress to enact legislation to address immigration. She denied the policy amounts to child abuse, as some have criticised.

Source: CNN


Protesters at a high-end Mexican restaurant in DC heckled her during the height of the conflict on June 19. “If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace,” the protesters reportedly chanted.

Source: Business Insider


Democrats in Congress called for her resignation. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Nielsen’s stance on the “zero tolerance” policy is “morally reprehensible.”

Sources: Business Insider, Twitter


As Trump signed an executive order he claimed would end the separation of families at the border, the president told her “good job.” But in private he’s reportedly “unloaded” on her in relation to legal setbacks connected to border apprehensions.

Source: CBS News


Through it all, Nielsen has proven herself as a loyal subordinate. And as the debate over Trump’s immigration policies wage on, her profile continues to grow.

Source: Business Insider

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