Immigration hard-liners aren’t thrilled with President Donald Trump’s pick to head the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
On Sunday, Trump announced Kirstjen Nielsen’s resignation from the role and named Kevin McAleenan, a longtime player in national security and the current head of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), as her temporary replacement.
McAleenan left his job in private sector law after 9/11 to pursue a career in national security and became deputy CBP commissioner under the Obama administration. Then, Trump promoted him to head the agency — a move praised by former officials from the Bush and Obama administrations.
But it’s precisely McAleenan’s ties to those previous administrations that has rankled immigration hardliners.
“Deep state #KevinMcAleenan to replace Nielsen at #DHS?” wrote former Arizona sheriff and outspoken anti-immigration activist Paul Babeu on Twitter. “McAleenan is known as the architect of Obama’s ‘#CatchAndRelease.’ This is almost unbelievable!”
Nielsen’s somewhat abrupt resignation Sunday came just days after Trump pulled the nomination of Ron Vitiello to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); the president said he wanted to go in a “tougher” direction.
The shakeup is rumored to be the brainchild of Trump advisor Stephen Miller, a far-right political activist and the reported architect of some of the administration’s most controversial policies on immigration, like the 2017 travel ban and the now-defunct “zero tolerance” or family separation policy. Trump and Nielsen reportedly butter heads over the latter: Trump wanted to reinstate it, and Nielsen resisted, sources told NBC.
Miller also reportedly wants Trump to dismiss other high-ranking DHS officials, according to CNN.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigration group with longstanding ties to Miller, weighed in on the upheaval, specifically on McAleenan’s role in orchestrating Obama’s immigration policy.
“It is crucial that @realDonaldTrump nominates a strong, respected outsider for Secretary of Homeland Security,” FAIR tweeted on Sunday evening. “We’ve seen what happens when he trusts immigration neophytes or Obama administration holdovers to implement his agenda.”
What he’s done so far
McAleenan started out working in counterterrorism under CBP and was appointed the agency’s area director at LAX airport in Los Angeles in 2006. Five years later, he moved to a senior role overseeing airport operations at all 329 ports of entry in the U.S. In 2014, he was appointed deputy commissioner of CBP.
"McAleenan is known as the architect of Obama’s ‘#CatchAndRelease.’ This is almost unbelievable!"
McAleenan enraged some hard-liners when he suggested bringing back the maligned policy of “catch and release” last June at the height of the administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy on immigration. “Catch and release” allows migrants with children to reside in the U.S. rather than be kept in detention. The phrase became popularized and then ended under the Bush administration in 2006 but was later reinstated by the Obama administration while McAleenan was second-in-command at CBP.
Despite hard-liners’ concerns, McAleenan appears to have had no problem executing Trump’s immigration policy thus far and has rarely split with the president. As CBP commissioner, McAleenan has overseen and enforced some of the most contentious border policy decisions in recent years.
Under his leadership, for example, the agency played a vital role in the enforcement of the Trump Administration’s controversial policy of separating children from their parents at the border.
But McAleenan recently voiced his concerns about Trump’s plans to cut more than $450 million in aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. That aid package, expanded under the Obama Administration, was designed to combat the root causes of the violence and poverty that migrants are fleeing in droves.
“There are solutions to this crisis,” McAleenan said when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. “We need to continue to support the governments in Central America to improve economic opportunities, to address poverty and hunger, and to improve governance and security.”
While immigration hardliners might see McAleenan as too soft, immigration advocates say his track record of enforcing Trump policies ought to disqualify him.
“The appointment of Kevin McAleenan as acting secretary is deeply disturbing,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat and Chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in a statement. "As he has also helped implement President Trump's agenda as CBP Commissioner, and I have no doubt that he will continue to do so as acting secretary.”
Other names in the ring
Some legal experts question whether Trump skirted official procedure by picking McAleenan as Nielsen’s replacement, instead of allowing Claire Grady, deputy secretary for Homeland Security, to step up to the plate.
Regardless of who should be in charge now, Trump has 210 days to find a permanent replacement for Nielsen, who said she would stay on until Wednesday. Some hardliners are already rallying behind Trump’s embattled “voter fraud czar” and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach as Nielsen’s permanent replacement.
According to recent reports, Trump was considering creating a new post of “immigration czar” to coordinate enforcement efforts across federal agencies — with Kobach potentially at the helm. Kobach, who also has long standing ties to groups like FAIR, has helped draft some of the most restrictive local immigration policies in the country.
Other names being floated as immigration czar reportedly include former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and former ICE Director Thomas Homan.
McAleenan takes the reins at DHS at a time when illegal border crossings are surging and at a 11-year high. Border patrol agents apprehended or turned away more than 100,000 people who’d either crossed the border illegally or were deemed inadmissible at ports of entry in March alone. The spike in parents and their children attempting to enter the United States has driven the surge.
McAleenan’s also taking over as Trump gears up for his 2020 run and wants to galvanize his base through the same hardline immigration chants crowds adopted in 2016. The president has already started to ratchet up his rhetoric and recently declared “our country is full” during a visit to the border. And instead of “build the wall,” Trump has now pivoted to “finish the wall” at some rallies.
Cover image: In this Wednesday, March 6, 2019, file photo, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan speaks during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on oversight of Customs and Border Protection's response to the smuggling of persons at the southern border, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)