As the public outcry over a policy separating newly arrived children from their parents at the border reached a fever pitch, the Trump administration rolled out a defiant defense Monday in front of a sheriffs conference in New Orleans.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions questioned the legitimacy of many of the families impacted by the recently adopted policy and said they would not allow minors to serve as a “get out of jail free card” for adults entering the country illegally.
The crowd at the annual conference of the National Sheriffs' Association cheered their remarks.
While the two cabinet officials spoke, roughly 100 protesters pushed and shoved up against deputies outside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, while reciting chants decrying Sessions and the policy that has led to thousands of children being detained separately from their parents in recent weeks.
Throughout her address, Nielsen lashed out against the news media, members of Congress and immigrant advocates as she argued that the Department of Homeland Security is simply enforcing the law.
“This department will no longer stand by and watch you attack law enforcement for enforcing the laws passed by Congress,” Nielsen said to applause. “We will not apologize for the job we do, or for the job law enforcement does, or for doing the job the American people expect of us.”
Sessions, who was given a standing ovation as he received a lifetime achievement award before his speech, struck a similar tone.
“There’s an important conversation in this country about whether we want to be a country of laws or whether we want to be a country without borders,” Sessions said.
Nielsen's and Sessions’ comments in New Orleans served to push the Trump administration’s preferred policies before a friendly crowd as Congress prepares to debate immigration legislation this week.
Proposed changes would allow minors to be deported or detained indefinitely with their parents, raise the legal threshold for refugees seeking to stay in the U.S. while authorities decide whether to grant them asylum, and fund the Mexican border wall that was a major part of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Last month, Sessions announced the administration would institute a “zero tolerance” policy that instructed federal law enforcement agents to seek criminal penalties against anyone found entering the country illegally. That’s resulted in 2,000 children being separated from their families after their parents were jailed.
With pictures of children behind chain-link fences in converted warehouses drawing widespread protests, Nielsen argued that the policies were not driven by a desire to be inhumane.
There is misinformation “that we at DHS are intentionally doing things that are unhumanitarian, that are cruel, immoral and disgraceful,” Nielsen said. “We are doing none of those things. We are enforcing the laws passed by Congress, and we are doing everything we can to protect our communities. It’s now time that Congress acts to fix our broken immigration system.”
The policies formerly in place, which allowed newly arrived parents with children to be released while awaiting a hearing, provided an incentive for those entering the country illegally to bring children — whether their own or not — as a “get out of jail free card” if they got caught, she said.
“We do not have the luxury of pretending that all individuals coming to this country as a family unit are a family,” Nielsen said.
Sessions has been the focus of much of the outrage over the new immigration policy, but he focused most of his speech on calling for harsher penalties for criminals, arguing that efforts to prevent recidivism had failed over the past several decades.
He touched on immigration only briefly to promote the administration's policies.
“President Trump has said this lawlessness cannot continue. We do not want to separate parents from their children, you can be sure of that. If we build a wall, pass some legislation, close some loopholes — we won’t face these terrible choices,” Sessions said.
As Nielsen and Sessions spoke inside the Morial Convention Center, about 100 people protested outside, waiving signs and chanting, “Jail Jeff Sessions!”
The protest, which was organized by the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the New Orleans Peoples’ Assembly, blocked traffic on Convention Center Boulevard for over an hour.
Nancy Staggs, a blues singer who lives Uptown, said she heard about the hastily organized demonstration late Sunday and stayed up until 2 a.m. making signs. “What is happening on our southern border is heartbreaking and disgusting,” she said.
At one point a group of protesters tried to enter the Convention Center’s main hall. Deputies from St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and Jefferson parishes stood in a line in front of the building and physically restrained them from entering.
The confrontation intensified as demonstrators attempted to slip past the deputies, only to have deputies push them back down the entrance steps. During the protest five people were detained and issued summonses for disturbing the peace, according to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office.
New Orleans police stood on the periphery. The Police Department said one woman was struck by a vehicle on Convention Center Boulevard. The driver was questioned but no arrests were made, police said. The woman refused medical treatment at the scene.
Pamela Neumann, a postdoctoral fellow at Tulane University’s Stone Center for Latin American Studies, said she has testified as an expert witness for immigrant women from Nicaragua who have fallen victim to domestic abuse and are seeking asylum in the U.S.
“There are very legitimate reasons that people come here,” she said. “It’s literally the last option they have. To treat asylum seekers as prisoners, it’s beyond the pale.”
St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne, the immediate past president of the National Sheriffs' Association, dismissed the protest.
"The protest in my opinion was a media stunt, and the organizers indicated to law enforcement officials that they did not wish to leave until they could get a few of their protesters arrested for the publicity," he said in a statement.
Shortly after Nielsen and Sessions left the stage, both New Orleans Catholic Archbishop Gregory Aymond and New Orleans City Council members issued separate condemnations of the Trump administration’s policy.
Aymond said in an emailed statement, “as people of faith, we must speak out for these children.”
“We believe immigration should be guided by laws that show charity while providing safety and security,” he said. “Our current immigration laws are not guided by these principles and are not fair or just.”
A statement released by City Council President Jason Williams and Vice President Helena Moreno said they will sponsor a resolution calling for an end to the current policy.
Williams said the policy is “inhumane and unnecessary, and as an African-American and a descendant of American slaves, this policy is evocative of some of the darkest days in this country’s young history. This policy is truly a self-inflicted wound, and like many we have seen from the current administration, is antithetical to American values and basic humanity."
Advocate staff writer Bryn Stole contributed to this story.