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Here's how Trump might get more extreme on immigration after his DHS purge

The president has said he wants to get “tougher” on immigration. Here's what that could mean for migrants and asylum-seekers.

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Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was one of the least beloved figures in D.C., accused by Democrats of carrying out inhumane immigration policies and criticized by Republicans as ineffective at addressing the surge of border crossings. You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief when she announced her resignation.

“She was either completely incompetent or comfortable with this administration’s cruel approach,” said Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, who represents El Paso, Texas. “Either way, she absolutely had to go.”


Initially, some on the other side of the aisle agreed. But Nielsen’s Sunday ouster was immediately followed by a purge of the top ranks of the Department of Homeland Security, and members of both parties are now anxious about what’s coming next.

“It’s a mess,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told Politico. “Strikes me as just a frustration of not being able to solve a problem.”

The shakeup comes as the U.S. is facing an unprecedented surge of migrant families seeking asylum. In recent weeks, Trump has doubled down on threatening hard-line policies that have largely been thrown out by the courts and so far failed to dissuade Central Americans migrants from coming.

“They have tried every cruel policy imaginable, and they have been struck down, so I’m not sure where the administration intends to go.”

The administration began pushing legislation that would make it easier to deport unaccompanied and undocumented minors. Trump also threatened a 25 percent tariff on cars made south of the border if Mexico doesn’t stop migrants trying to reach the U.S.

And news organizations including NBC and CNN have reported Nielsen was ousted because she wouldn’t get on board with Trump’s demands to reinstate family separations policy (Trump has denied he is looking to reintroduce that policy).

Here are some other hard-line options that may be on the table — even if they may not hold up in court.

Family separations

The official taking over as acting DHS secretary is reportedly open to bringing back a variation of the family separation policy. NBC cited three government officials who said Kevin McAleenan, the head of Customs and Border Patrol, is considering a move that would require migrant parents to choose being separated from their children or sent into long-term detention as a family.

It’s unclear how this would — or could — work. Practically speaking, detention centers are already beyond capacity. Such a policy would also prompt legal challenges, as a federal judge ruled in July that federal immigration agents can no longer separate parents and children apprehended crossing the border. A 2007 federal court decision also limits the government from holding migrant families in jail for more than 20 days.


Still, the Trump administration has been aiming to get around this 2007 decision for months, and Republicans in Congress have proposed legislation that would allow families to be held indefinitely in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody while their cases are decided.

Lee Gelernt, who successfully challenged the family separation policy on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, said any move to reinstate family separations would be challenged in court. “They have tried every cruel policy imaginable, and they have been struck down, so I’m not sure where the administration intends to go.”

Expansion of Remain in Mexico — or not

One of the administration’s newest initiatives is its so-called Remain in Mexico policy, which requires some asylum seekers to return to Mexico and stay there while their cases are decided in the U.S. Administration officials say the policy, launched in January, is meant to deter migrants from making false asylum claims while easing overcrowded detention centers. About 700 Central American asylum seekers have been sent back to Mexico under the policy since it was started in January, and Customs and Border Protection is in the process of expanding across the southern border.

But like so many of the Trump administration’s proposals, it may be illegal. On Monday, a federal judge ruled that the policy isn’t legal and halted its roll-out. The ruling was made on narrow legal grounds that the Trump administration will surely appeal, so for now the fate of the program remains unclear.


DHS did not reply to a request for comment on the future of Remain in Mexico and other planned policies to stem migration by time of publication.

More workplace raids

Workplace raids to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants have jumped since Trump took office. Homeland Security investigations opened 6,848 worksite investigations in 2018 compared to 1,691 in 2017.

Earlier this month, federal immigration agents carried out the largest one in 10 years. Agents arrested more than 280 employees, mostly women, at an electronics repair company in Texas on immigration violations.

(The Trump Organization’s Florida clubs, meanwhile, are scrambling to get rid of their undocumented workers, the New York Times reported Tuesday.)

Closing the Border

For now, Trump has backed off his threats to shut the U.S.-Mexico border, saying he would give Mexico a “one-year warning” to stop the flow of drugs and migrants to the U.S. But parts of the border are already operating at reduced capacity, as DHS has reassigned around 750 port staff to deal with the surge in migrant detention.

The reallocation of staff has led to lane closures and hours-long traffic delays. Asylum seekers trying to enter the U.S. legally at ports of entry are frequently waiting months to pass.

Experts say Trump could technically shut down the border on national security grounds, although he’d almost certainly face legal challenges. It would also be an economic catastrophe.


A humanitarian crisis

Nielsen’s resignation caps a hectic month in which Trump has mocked asylum seekers, lashed out at Mexico for failing to stop them, promised to cut aid to Central American countries, threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border, and declared the U.S. couldn’t accept more migrants because “our country is full.”

Coyotes are turning his anti-immigrant crackdown into a selling point to Central American migrants: Come now before his policies stick.

While politicians on both sides of the aisle are watching the attacks with no small degree of angst, Nielsen’s departure offers an opportunity for the Trump administration to improve its relationship with Congress. Nielsen had lost all credibility with Democratic lawmakers and even some Republicans because of her insistence that the Trump administration didn’t have a policy of separating migrant families.

With the 2020 election approaching, Democrats don’t want to risk appearing indifferent to the border crisis, and having someone new at the top of DHS could encourage them to cut deals. McAleenan, a career official who worked in the Obama administration, is considered a straight shooter compared to Nielsen.

“I was able to have a rational conversation with him, so I give him credit for that,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, adding that he was glad to see Nielsen go.

But Randy Capps, research director at the Migration Policy Institute, said changing DHS leadership is “going to create more chaos and insecurity.” He added that no matter who’s in charge, they will run into the same legal obstacles implementing Trump’s policy as Nielsen did.

Cover: U.S. President Donald Trump gestures after speaking during the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual leadership meeting at The Venetian Las Vegas on April 6, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)