The announcement that Kirstjen Nielsen was stepping down as Secretary of Homeland Security was sudden, but it wasn’t really a surprise. Never a favorite of President Trump, her days became numbered when her patron in the administration, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, resigned in December. Nielsen’s biggest fault in the eyes of the president and those who surround him was that she failed to stop the steady stream of migrants from moving northward from Central America. Nothing, it seems, perturbs the president more than desperate people seeking sanctuary in the United States.
Her departure should be welcomed. Nielsen oversaw the draconian separation of thousands of migrant children from their families in a nasty and unsuccessful effort to deter others who might seek asylum. That was a policy so vile and destructive that even Trump, who has no shame, was eventually shamed into ending it.
In general, there were few significant public differences between Nielsen and Trump on immigration enforcement, the part of Homeland Security that matters the most to the president. For instance, Nielsen oversaw the president’s program forcing asylum seekers to wait out the lengthy process in Mexico — a policy struck down by a federal judge on Monday because the administration failed to follow federal law in crafting the new policy.
Nothing, it seems, perturbs the president more than desperate people seeking sanctuary in the United States.
Yet the president held Nielsen responsible for the abject failures of his self-defeating policies, which have done little to address the reasons behind the increase in asylum applications from families fleeing violence and poverty in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The rising number of asylum seekers is a complex problem, to be sure, and its predecessor issue — the arrival at the border of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors, beginning in 2014 — vexed the Obama administration. But Trump, who has ranted for years about immigration enforcement, has found no workable solutions either, beyond trying to stop people from exercising their legal right to seek asylum.
Nielsen’s resignation also is part of a sweeping purge of top leaders in the agencies charged with enforcing immigration laws that, according to reports of out Washington, has been orchestrated by top White House advisor Stephen Miller. Among the most anti-immigrant voices in Trump’s ear, Miller has recently assumed more responsibility over immigration policy and homeland security. Late last week Trump withdrew the nomination of Ronald D. Vitiello as director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, saying he wanted to go in an unspecified “tougher” direction. One hint as to what that might be: NBC News reports that Trump wants to renew family separations as “the most effective policy at deterring large numbers of asylum seekers,” a move Nielsen reportedly resisted. Yet Vitiello, a career border patrol agent, also faced significant opposition from the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, the union for some 7,000 ICE agents, which was an early and active supporter of Trump’s campaign.
These personnel moves are likely to add even more instability and uncertainty to the nation’s immigration enforcement apparatus. Trump on Sunday named Kevin McAleenan, head of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection division, to be acting DHS secretary, which means that his current job will likely have to be done by another fill-in appointment. To sum up: Trump now has acting top executives in charge of Homeland Security and two of its top immigration-enforcement arms — ICE (mostly handling enforcement in the nation’s interior) and Customs and Border Patrol (which handles enforcement at the border). And there are reports that the head of U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, Lee Francis Cissna, may also be targeted by Miller. This is government by chaos.
Meanwhile, the migrants continue to arrive, as many as 100,000 in March, according to the government’s numbers. Trump’s detention policies and his failure to sufficiently expand the immigration court system to handle the increased demand are yet more evidence that neither the president nor his top appointees know how to run a government. The president should work with Congress to finally adopt comprehensive immigration reform, craft informed policies to help stabilize the countries the migrants are fleeing, assess current asylum laws to see if they need changes, and prompt an overdue discussion of what the shape of future immigration should be. Instead, Trump throws a tantrum.