Kirstjen Nielsen may have the toughest job in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.
As the administration’s chief immigration enforcer, she’s in charge of implementing his zero-tolerance policy at the southern U.S. border. But she’s also responsible for maintaining working relationships with local leaders, including Democrats, who are diametrically opposed to Trump’s approach.
So on Friday, as the president told members of the National Rifle Association that he would push to seal the border and push for merit-based immigration legislation “not based on picking someone out of a bin,” Nielsen announced she would cancel special immigration status for roughly 86,000 Hondurans living in the U.S.—but on the same day, her department accepted dozens of Central American asylum-seekers who traveled as part of a much-publicized caravan to the San Diego border area, despite Nielsen’s own earlier warnings that those in the caravan would be turned away.
Nielsen, a cybersecurity expert who worked in the Bush administration, has stood alongside Trump in dialing up warnings about immigration as part of a strategy to deter additional people from coming to the U.S.
Yet she’s had to walk a tightrope, current and former aides said, picking her moments with Trump in private while preserving a working relationship with leaders here and abroad who view the administration’s immigration policies as anathema to their values.
“It’s a balancing act,” said one person who’s worked with her.
Her immigration diplomacy in politically hostile territories has led to a few breaks with the president. As Trump admonished California Gov. Jerry Brown last month on Twitter for not getting on board with his immigration program, Nielsen was having conversations that the Democratic governor characterized to POLITICO as “cordial and straightforward.”
Brown ultimately accepted federal dollars to deploy hundreds of National Guard troops to target transnational criminal gangs, human traffickers and illegal drug and arms smugglers along the border – without a promise to have state or local authorities assist in enforcing federal immigration laws.
Trump’s claim Friday that Mexico, “which has a massive crime problem, is doing little to help!” contradicted Nielsen’s appreciative message to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto after they met in late March. She thanked him for “helping to foster a close partnership with the department during his administration.”
But as Trump’s Cabinet has been shuffled – and reshuffled – Nielsen has remained untouched. She maintains a close relationship with White House chief of staff John Kelly, despite clashing with West Wing colleagues during her time there as Kelly’s deputy, a job she took after working for Kelly during his time as DHS secretary.
“And,” a former Trump aide noted, “she’s good on TV.”
Along with helping activate the military to secure the border – with frequent appearances on TV – Nielsen is working to scuttle so-called “sanctuary cities” that shield undocumented immigrants and petitioning Congress for money to build Trump’s southern border wall, which she calls “a proven tool.”
“We have no idea what’s coming through areas that we do not have a way, currently, to properly and adequately surveil,” Nielsen said recently while at the border region, which her boss describes as “under siege.” “To me that is the definition of a crisis.”
Nielsen has made eight visits to the border this year, including stops in San Diego to view border wall prototypes, to the National Targeting Center with Trump, and to Calexico, Calif., to check in on wall construction.
Republican border-state governors have been thrilled. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who recently toured the border with her, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott praise her cooperation, with Abbott’s office seeing it as a “welcome change from the previous administration.”
Kirk Adams, Ducey’s chief of staff, agreed.
“The secretary has developed a culture of communication with the states that we haven’t seen before. And that has been very refreshing and very helpful from our perspective,” he said.
But her main audience is Trump.
As the migrant caravan rumbled through Mexico toward the U.S., Nielsen chose to make a public statement rather than simply waiting for it to arrive at the border. Participating in a caravan does not give immigrants additional rights, Nielsen said in a polished and succinct version of Trump’s own warnings to illegal border crossers.
A few days earlier, Nielsen was on the southern border with Ducey and newly deployed members of the National Guard, where she emphasized that a “crisis” was unfolding.
The president and Nielsen “have a great relationship and work incredibly well together,” said White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley.
Nielsen further demonstrated her loyalty when she testified earlier this year that she didn’t hear Trump behind closed doors refer to African nations as “shithole” countries — remarks attributed to the president by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and others in reports.
Asked whether Trump used a similar word, Nielsen responded: “The conversation was very impassioned. I don’t dispute that the president was using tough language. Others in the room were also using tough language.”
Her department in back-to-back statements this spring tore into bipartisan immigration bills, dismissing a proposal by Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Chris Coons of Delaware as a “mass legalization bill” that “grants immediate status to millions of illegal aliens, including dangerous criminal aliens and convicted felons.”
The measure, the statement said, “does nothing to stop unchecked chain migration.”
In another release, DHS blasted a bipartisan bill by Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York, Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Susan Collins of Maine, arguing it would “effectively make the United States a Sanctuary Nation where ignoring the rule of law is encouraged.”
Tensions flared, with supporters of the legislation charging DHS with simply parroting a skeptical White House, which on the same day put out a prepared statement to torpedo the measure, contending it would weaken border security and undercut immigration law.
DHS’s barbed remarks generated animosity across both sides of the aisle. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who worked on the immigration bill, called the press release “poisonous,” telling reporters “I’ve long since stopped paying attention to them.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.), reacting to Nielsen not recalling Trump’s comments, said her “amnesia” amounted to “complicity.” He described himself during a hearing as “seething with anger.”
Meantime, Democrats on the Hill are still waiting for Nielsen to follow through on several promises, including issuing a written directive to agents that DACA recipients would not be enforcement priorities, though she’s said so verbally. Democrats also want her to provide guidance to DHS agents that they should prioritize enforcement activities on those who violated the penal code and are pushing to re-open the DACA application period because of hurricanes, wildfires and a steep filing fee.
“She’s really implementing Trump’s agenda,” one Democratic aide said. “People hoped she’d be a check on him, and that hasn’t been the case.”