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  6. Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen Remarks at National Sheriffs’ Association Conference

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In an effort to keep DHS.gov current, the archive contains outdated information that may not reflect current policy or programs.

Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen Remarks at National Sheriffs’ Association Conference

Release Date: June 18, 2018

Thank you, Congressman Scalise, It’s an honor to join you all today. I’m happy to be joined by Matt Albence, Director of ERO, Sector Chief Karish, and FLETC Deputy Director Fallon.

I’d like to thank Sheriff Eavenson for his leadership of the Association this past year, and congratulate Sheriff Layton on his new position as incoming president. I had the honor of meeting Sheriff Layton as well as Sheriff Dannels and others last month on a trip to Arizona where I heard directly from law enforcement on the challenges of working along the border. On behalf of DHS, I look forward to our continued partnership with the NSA, our nation’s sheriffs, and your Executive Director, Jonathan Thompson. Jonathan – thank you for inviting me to speak here today.

As sheriffs, you are a vital part of our homeland security team. You are on the frontlines. And so it is a privilege to be here and have an opportunity to thank you for the commendable, often-dangerous, job you all do every day.

Sadly, as earlier mentioned, we were reminded of that danger with the loss of two members of the sheriff family last week. Deputy Sheriff Theresa King and Deputy Sheriff Patrick Rohrer were killed in the line of duty, and I join all of you in mourning the loss of these dedicated officers. My thoughts and prayers are with the law enforcement family always.

Law enforcement is a calling for a select few who are tireless, faithful and dogged in executing their duty to protect their communities from danger and in honoring their oaths to uphold the law. On behalf of the men and women of DHS, thank you all for your dedication and sacrifice.

Please know that DHS is your partner and will be by your side as we protect our borders, enforce our immigration laws and defend our communities. As many of you know, DHS is the largest law enforcement agency in the country. I am proud to support all law enforcement – your passion, your mission, your commitment to fight for what you need to do the job entrusted to you.

To a select few in the media, Congress, and the advocacy community I have a message for you: this Department will no longer stand by and watch you attack law enforcement for enforcing the laws passed by Congress. We will not apologize or back down for doing the job the American people expect us to do.

Unfortunately, for political gain, some politicians are trying to pit local and state law enforcement officials against federal officials. This blue on blue approach is a disservice to the public and every law enforcement official around the country.

This morning, I want to discuss three threats that will require collaboration and partnership with you. I want to start off by addressing one of the most prominent homeland and national security threats facing the Department and many of you as well. That’s the threat to our nation resulting from the lawlessness at our borders and a lack of respect for our immigration laws.

Make no mistake: Our border is in crisis. It’s being exploited by criminals, smugglers, and thousands of people who have no respect for our laws.

As I mentioned, last month, in Douglas, Arizona, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of sheriffs whose communities are often the ones on the front lines as smugglers, traffickers, and transnational criminal organizations take advantage of our unsecure border. I would especially like to thank Sheriff Dannels of Cochise County for hosting that meeting. And thank you to Sherriffs Layton, Martinez, Napier, Wilmot, and Wolfinger for sharing your thoughts and concerns with me. During that meeting we agreed to establish a periodic meeting schedule and I look forward sitting down with you again in July.

These sheriffs see first-hand that border security is an issue of law and order. Whether it’s Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and officers or local law enforcement, these professionals confront the ugly business of human trafficking and drug and human smuggling on a daily basis.

But they also confront the reality of the humanitarian crisis unfolding. From rescuing illegal immigrants in the desert to uncovering them in packed and overheated trailers, law enforcement bears witness to the effects on our most vulnerable – our children. And the gang violence and recruitment of children is not limited to illegal alien children.

During my visit last month, the sheriffs shared with me a picture—a horrific one—of a 15 year old boy, an American citizen who was recruited by a Mexican cartel to smuggle drugs. This kid, way in over his head, lost his load of drugs. In retaliation, he was repeatedly stunned with a Taser and savagely beaten with a board. These cartels are infiltrating our communities, corrupting children, and hurting our citizens. Make no mistake - they are not humanitarians. They prioritize profit over human life.

Our challenge moving forward – as a community – is to identify what we can do to address these complex problems. The men and women who have sworn to protect our communities have expressed their frustration with previous administrations failing to act. Thank you, President Eavenson, for your recent letter to me underscoring this point.

But that failure to act has changed under this President.

Securing our nation’s borders and empowering the men and women in uniform on the front lines to carry out their missions is a priority for this President, this Department and for me.

Our Border Patrol Agents are working tirelessly, but they need additional resources and authorities. That’s why President Trump is calling for a border wall system – the operators have spoken and asked for a system in very specific, very defined areas of the border.

As a result, we are building the first new wall in ten years.

But this system goes beyond a wall, and includes—as the Border Patrol and our nation’s sheriffs have requested—the technology, transportation infrastructure, and personnel to support a secure border.

While we are glad to have construction underway, we need Congress to fully fund the border wall system and I am hopeful that legislation soon to be acted on in the House will authorize these resources.

But there’s more that needs to be done beyond a wall system. We must continue to enforce the laws, as passed by Congress, and to close dangerous legal loopholes that serve as pull factors to those seeking to illegally enter the country.

We need to be clear: Illegal actions have serious consequences. No more free passes. No more get out of jail free. No more lawlessness.

Today, DHS is referring those who illegally cross our borders to the Department of Justice for prosecution. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions and DOJ will take up those cases.

It is important to remember that every day in communities across the country—if you commit a crime, the police will take you to jail—regardless of whether you have a family.

I want to take one minute to address the consequences of actually enforcing our immigration law. There has been much outcry and consternation from many in Congress over the last few weeks that we at DHS are actually enforcing the law at the border.

As a result of charging people for crimes they HAVE actually committed, we must often separate adults from minors in their custody. In our society and most others in the world, it is well established that you don’t send children to jail with their parents.

DHS is faced with a reality not of our making: We cannot detain children with their parents. We must either release both the parents and children – this is the historic get out of jail free practice of the previous administration – or the adult and the minor will be separated as a result of prosecuting the adult. Those are our only two options.

It is important to note that these minors are very well taken care of. You know this, as you have detention facilities of your own. We operate according to some of the highest standards in the country – food, medical, and education are all taken care of.

Let’s be honest. There are some who would like us to look the other way when dealing with families at the border and not enforce the law passed by Congress. Including some Members of Congress. Past Administrations may have done so but we will not. We do not have the luxury of pretending all individuals claiming to be a family are, in fact, a family. We have to do our job. We will not apologize for that. We are sworn to do that.

This Administration has a simple message: If you cross the border illegally, we will prosecute you. If you make a false immigration claim, we will prosecute you. If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, we will prosecute you.

But I have also made clear – you do not need to break the law by entering illegally to claim asylum. If you are seeking asylum go to a port of entry.

For months, staff at CBP, ICE and USCIS and I have been on the Hill briefing members about the threat posed by these loopholes and discussing ways to close them and to fix our broken immigration system.

So, let me take a minute to walk you through a few of the legal loopholes that DHS must confront every day and the solutions we have requested from Congress. The effects of our broken system are felt in all communities – not just those on the border.

First, under existing law, certain unaccompanied alien children from Mexico and Canada who enter illegally and have no valid claim to stay can be quickly returned home, but unaccompanied children from every other country in the world must be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within 72 hours and then released to parents or guardians in the United States. This is a significant pull factor that encourages these children to make the dangerous journey north.

Additionally, when a child is apprehended with their parents, DHS is required – due to various court rulings – to release that child within 20 days. As I mentioned earlier, this effectively creates a “get out of jail free” card for families and groups who pose as families. Unsurprisingly, word of this loophole has spread across the world. From October 2017 to this February, DHS saw a staggering 315 percent increase in illegal aliens fraudulently using children to pose as family units to gain entry into the country, compared to the previous year.

To address these issues we’ve asked Congress to change the law to allow for the expeditious return of all unaccompanied alien children, regardless of their country of origin. We are also asking Congress to allow us to keep families together while they are detained. These fixes would go a long way toward discouraging families from sending children on the harrowing journey to the US, resulting in fewer children in the hands of gangs, such as MS-13, and more adults facing the consequences of their actions.

Second, our system for asylum is broken. We are a compassionate country that has taken in millions of refugees and granted asylum to hundreds of thousands over the last few decades or assisted them near their home countries. Since 1975, the United States has welcomed more than 3 million refugees from all over the world, and each year typically admits nearly two-thirds of the world’s resettled refugees, more than all other countries combined.

Unfortunately, because we have an incredibly low initial standard for claiming credible fear, as part of the asylum process, our generosity is abused. As a result, over the last seven years we have seen the number of individuals claiming asylum skyrocket.

Before 2011, approximately one out of every 100 people arriving illegally claimed credible fear and sought asylum in the United States. Today, that number is one out of every ten. The result of such a low threshold for an initial credible fear screening is an asylum backlog of 600,000 cases where applicants sit in limbo for years waiting for resolution.

After passing the unnecessarily low-standard initial screening, applicants can live and work in the U.S. for years. This is true even for the 80 percent who are ultimately rejected for asylum at their final adjudication. For the 20 percent who truly need asylum, they are mired in the years-long backlog and are in limbo.

To address this issue, we’ve asked Congress to adjust the standard of proof to prevent well-coached applicants from uttering the “magic words” indicating a fear of returning home. This change would ensure that those who deserve asylum find it quickly so they can begin their new lives.

Finally, as you well know many communities have adopted “sanctuary” policies that protect criminal aliens from federal law enforcement. Instead of turning these criminals that are in their custody over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to face immigration proceedings consistent with federal law, these communities shelter them and release the criminals back onto their streets. They often refuse to simply cooperate and share information with DHS as we enforce federal law.

To address this issue, we are asking Congress to fully authorize ICE detainers—and provide indemnification for jurisdictions who willfully comply. Removing criminal aliens in controlled environments such as jails protect the men and women of ICE as well as the local communities. I would encourage you to reach out to Members to ensure your voices are heard.

In the meantime, as ICE’s state and local law enforcement partners are increasingly challenged in court for facilitating the secure and orderly custodial transfer of criminal aliens to ICE, NSA has been a strong partner in working with us to address this public safety issue.

For example, as many of you know, NSA and the Major County Sheriffs of America (MCSA) worked with ICE to develop a new process to clarify that aliens held by these jurisdictions are held under the color of federal authority, thereby affording local law enforcement liability protection from potential litigation as a result of faithfully executing their public safety duties.

As a result, earlier this year, ICE announced 17 Basic Ordering Agreements (BOA) with various Florida sheriffs that aim to prevent the release of criminal aliens back into the community.

ICE is instituting the BOA process with a small number of partner jurisdictions in order to ensure a smooth roll-out, but intends to gradually expand implementation with willing law enforcement partners over the coming months.

Going into this week’s vote in Congress, my message to members is clear – you have a choice. If you want to secure our borders, if you want to keep gangs such as MS-13 out of our communities, if you want to address the fundamental issues driving illegal immigration, if you want to restore the rule of law, you must close these loopholes. If you want to support a broken immigration system that harms the interests of Americans and our security, rewards those who thumb their noses at our laws, and puts families and children needlessly at risk, then don’t vote to fix the problem. It is a simple choice.


For those who have complained about this Administration’s vigorous enforcement of the law – and the results of that enforcement – this is your opportunity to work with us to fix the incentives that encourage, and even reward, people who violate our laws and, even worse, put themselves and their families at risk of harm in the hands of smugglers and gangs. This is a complex and emotionally-charged issue. It will take courage and clear-eyed solutions to address it. I am optimistic that we will see Members rolling up their sleeves to fix these challenges.

As Secretary, I am willing to work with any and all members of Congress who will pass legislation that helps the men and women of my Department secure our borders, and helps you, our sheriffs and our other law enforcement partners keep our communities safe from nefarious actors. And I look forward to many such conversations this week with member.

As Congressman Scalise said, it is an issue the last four administrations have struggled with.

Human Trafficking

Aside from immigration, we also have several national challenges facing us as a community – such as human trafficking and the opioid epidemic.

Today, almost every community is affected by the modern day slavery known as human trafficking. President Trump has made combatting human trafficking a priority across the government, and has directed federal agencies to jointly address this significant problem.

At DHS, we leverage our law enforcement resources to target traffickers, and disrupt and dismantle their criminal enterprises all along their illicit pathways.

ICE Homeland Security Investigations conducts law enforcement operations for both international and domestic trafficking cases, and ICE victim assistance specialists help trafficking survivors rebuild their lives.

In 2017, ICE Homeland Security Investigations initiated 833 human trafficking cases, resulting in 1,602 criminal arrests, and the identification and/or rescue of 518 trafficking victims.

USCIS provides eligible non-citizen trafficking victims with immigration relief.

Customs and Border Protection identifies victims along our borders and at our ports of entry.

And our Federal Law Enforcement Training Center teaches law enforcement professionals to identify victims and conduct trafficking investigations.

It is no secret that Transnational Criminal Organizations are using their networks to smuggle dangerous drugs, illegal aliens, and potential terrorists into our country.

These TCOs have no concern for human lives—they are solely motivated by profit. These criminal networks are a significant and persistent threat to our nation’s security—and we are working tirelessly to stop them.

One example is Operation Safe Haven, an investigation into a loosely affiliated organization that coordinated the illegal movement of women—from Mexico and Central America, across the Southern Border, and into brothels throughout the southern United States.

As we see in Operation Safe Haven, while human trafficking and human smuggling are not synonymous - human trafficking of course referring to people who are transported against their will - people who are illegally smuggled into this country are easy for traffickers to exploit—because they sometimes have nowhere to turn.

In a single day, after a 15 month investigation, federal authorities arrested 29 people in 13 cities across 8 states. Law enforcement officers also rescued 15 victims.

So we must raise awareness.

As the ICE Special Agent in Charge in Atlanta said, “This investigation identified women victimized through fraud, force, and coercion—including underage teens. To the criminals behind these illegal enterprises, these women are just objects used to pull a quick profit, and then discarded or passed on to the next trafficker down the line.”

At the Department of Homeland Security, the Blue Campaign is our unified effort to raise public consciousness about human trafficking, and bring traffickers to justice. That includes developing industry-specific tool kits and training products.

These products will help private industry and law enforcement stakeholders recognize the signs of trafficking specific to their line of work.

I ask you to be part of our team, and part of this greater global fight against human trafficking.

Drug Trade

The final topic I’d like to discuss today also affects every corner of our country—the drug trade, a massive source of income for TCOs, and a key driver of desperation and violence on both sides of the border.

The drug trade in the United States has reached epidemic levels, particularly with regard to opioids which kill more than 115 of our fellow Americans every day. In April I met with some of your NSA members, as well as members of the National Association of Counties, and other stakeholders, for a roundtable discussion on the opioid crisis.

Many of you have seen this crisis in action every day. All state, local and county resources are facing challenges. Emergency medical services are overwhelmed, there are challenges with foster care for children of opioid-addicted parents, and county budgets are being stretched to the limit.

This is why the President worked with the U.S. Congress to provide for six billion dollars in the next two fiscal years to address this growing crisis in the country.

Despite the pull on your limited resources, at-capacity detention facilities, healthcare challenges, and personnel shortages, you have been more than willing to assist the federal government in our efforts. During the recent opioid roundtable, several of your Association members made presentations or commented about innovative initiatives being created in counties to provide alternatives to those caught in addiction.

The sacrifices you are making and the challenges you are facing have not gone unnoticed, and I want to say thank you.

At DHS, combating this public health emergency is an all-hands effort, and we are attacking the problem at all stages: from the source, at the border, in the interior of our country, over the internet, and through the mail.

DHS, together with the Departments of Justice and State, works with our law enforcement counterparts throughout the world, particularly those from China, Mexico, and South America, to share information regarding known sources of heroin, fentanyl, and precursors.

These efforts are also forward-looking. We are monitoring how the crisis continues to evolve, and ensuring proactive outreach with countries that have the potential to become new major sources of opioids.

But that is only one part of our approach. We are equally focused on stopping opioids and other drugs from crossing our borders, and CBP plays a critical role in the Department’s counter-narcotics efforts. Last year, CBP seized millions of pounds of drugs, and—illustrating the violence and corruption inherent in trafficking—millions of dollars and thousands of firearms.

Our efforts are not limited to our land borders and last year, the Coast Guard seized a record 223 metric tons of cocaine—with a street value of $7.2 billion—and handed more than 600 suspected drug smugglers over to the Department of Justice for prosecution.

In the interior of our country, HSI investigates opioid smuggling domestically through Border Enforcement Security Taskforces (BESTs). HSI currently operates 62 BESTs in locations throughout the United States, leveraging the participation of more than 1,000 federal, state, local, and foreign law enforcement agents and officers, representing over 100 law enforcement agencies, to target opioid smuggling. For those of you have joined our task forces, we thank you.

HSI also performs an essential role in detecting, investigating, and preventing the sale and distribution of opioids through the internet. In coordination with our federal and state, local partners and with increased capabilities, cyber analytics, and trained cyber investigators and analysts, HSI has the ability to remove the sellers and products and to eliminate market places and uncover the identities of the members of entire supply chains from manufacturers to distributors and, in many cases, to the end user.

In addition to land and sea interdiction, we are also working to end opioid transfer and delivery by air. This includes enhancing the quantity and quality of Advance Electronic Data to help us better target high-risk shipments to the United States through international mail, and working with our partners in the U.S. Postal Service to better detect and intercept high-risk shipments passing through those facilities. I want to thank Congressman Scalise and others in the House for working on the STOP Act – the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act – to give DHS more information to prevent the entry of these drugs.

I cannot overstate this: We cannot win this fight alone. The sheer magnitude of the opioid epidemic requires us to expand and strengthen our existing partnerships within the federal government, with international partners, with state and local partners, and—of course—with you, our nation’s sheriffs.

So allow me to end with a call for continued partnership. You are on the front lines of this fight. You are our eyes and ears. You know your communities and their needs. And whether it’s TCOs, illegal migration flows, human trafficking, or opioids, we cannot address these challenges without your input. We need your experience, your expertise, your insights.

And today, I ask you to consider the many ways we can strengthen our partnership. I invite you to join one of our many task forces, to take the training DHS offers, or to share trends and patterns through Suspicious Activity Reporting, and the National Network of Fusion Centers.

During my recent visit with border sheriffs that I mentioned earlier, I suggested one approach was to solicit ideas from your community by forming a working group to the Homeland Security Advisory Council. The Council is designed to tackle tough issues in the homeland security enterprise and provide me as Secretary with practical solutions. One example might be an issue raised to me concerning participation in grant programs.

While grants provide necessary resources to your departments for detection and apprehension, grant eligibility may not extend to other areas such as incarceration, prosecution and adjudication. This results in some county governing bodies’ reluctance to authorize your participation in grant programs because of added costs on the criminal justice system. A working group could study this problem using experts from your community and provide meaningful solutions.

By partnering together we will not only realize important advancements in the safety and security of the Nation, we will build resilience in our communities.

Most of all, I ask you to let us know what more you need from us. With me here today from our Office of Partnership and Engagement’s Office of State and Local Law Enforcement are Assistant Secretary for Partnership and Engagement John Hill and Deputy Assistant Secretary Brian Dorow.

I am also excited to announce today that I will soon be appointing Scott Erickson as my Law Enforcement Advisor. Many of you know Scott. He works today in our Office of Partnership and Engagement and is also here today. Soon he will be bringing his deep law enforcement background into my office to make sure your voices are heard and that our partnerships are deepened.

The protection of our homeland can only be successful through partnerships. I look forward to working with you on the challenges I discussed today as well as on combatting emerging threats, such as drones and chemical and biological attacks. Please share lessons learned – what is working and what is not. Help us see the trends you see.

Again, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. I am honored to work alongside the sheriffs to make our nation more secure.

Last Updated: 02/05/2021
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