Politics

Trump taps Mark Morgan, former Obama Border Patrol chief, to head ICE

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Former U.S. Border Patrol Chief Mark Morgan testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. President Trump is tapping Morgan to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
(Cliff Owen / AP)

It’s not the kind of first meeting you want to have with your new boss: When Mark Morgan, then head of the Border Patrol, met Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly for the first time in January 2017, he was told that newly inaugurated President Trump was firing him.

Morgan had served as chief of the Border Patrol for six months under President Obama, and Trump, who’d won the White House in part because of his pledges to crack down on immigration, had made clear he wanted to go in a different direction.

On Sunday, Trump announced he was bringing Morgan back, saying in a Twitter message that he was tapping Morgan to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the embattled Homeland Security agency charged primarily with enforcement and deportations.

A Senate aide confirmed Sunday that Morgan has yet to be formally nominated to the post. Once the president does that, Morgan must be confirmed by the Senate. Department of Homeland Security spokespeople did not respond to questions about whether officials there had been informed of the pick before the president’s tweet.

“I am pleased to inform all of those that believe in a strong, fair and sound Immigration Policy that Mark Morgan will be joining the Trump Administration as the head of our hard working men and women of ICE,” Trump tweeted. “Mark is a true believer and American Patriot. He will do a great job!”

As Trump has grown increasingly frustrated that his aggressive policies have failed to curb a surge in people crossing the southern border, primarily Central American families and asylum seekers, Morgan has voiced support for the president. In public appearances, congressional testimony and interviews, Morgan has made clear he was auditioning for a new administration job.

Morgan did not respond to requests for comment Sunday.

“Here’s phase one of what ‘tougher’ looks like, in my opinion,” Morgan told The Times in an interview last month. Administration officials “have to stop expecting that Congress is going to do their job. DHS is going to have to address this issue all alone.”

Under current laws on asylum, “the incentive is: grab kid, step one foot onto U.S. soil, and you’re allowed in, never to be heard from again,” he continued. “In the immediate, we have to do something — even if we lose in the courts, we still gotta do something to stop the incentive.”

If confirmed, Morgan would be among the first to fill a key post vacated in Trump’s recent purge of top Homeland Security officials — starting with his previous nominee to lead ICE — as he vowed to go in a “tougher” direction to stop the surge at the border.

In contrast with a White House that has relatively thin experience in government, Morgan left at the end of January 2017 with more than three decades of service — in the Marines, like Kelly, as well as the Los Angeles Police Department, FBI and several Homeland Security posts, under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

“Mark Morgan’s career spans more than 31 years of faithful service to the nation, including service in the U.S. Marine Corps, as a local deputy sheriff and police officer, 20 years in the FBI, as Assistant Commissioner of CBP’s Office of Internal Affairs, and, finally, as Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol,” Kevin McAleenan, the head of Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol’s parent agency, wrote upon Morgan’s departure in 2017. “I wish him every success in the future.”

That future will now once again involve working under McAleenan, another former Obama administration official whom Trump named acting Homeland Security secretary after ousting Kirstjen Nielsen.

Morgan told The Times that he had been “blindsided” by the president removing Nielsen. Lawmakers have expressed concern to the White House that having more than a dozen vacancies in the Homeland Security leadership could leave the country insecure.

In January, roughly two years after his own removal and amid a record-breaking partial government shutdown over Trump’s demands for billions for his long-promised border wall, Morgan drew renewed attention when he publicly backed the president. “The wall works,” he said.

Trump has yet to add a single new mile to the roughly 700 miles of border barrier built under his predecessors, despite declaring a national emergency Feb. 15 to get around Congress and tap into other federal funding.

Morgan echoed the Trump administration in criticizing longstanding U.S. law, judicial precedent, and nationwide injunctions that have barred migrant children from being detained for longer than 20 days and blocked many administration attempts to curb immigration. “It creates ‘catch and release,’ which is really what’s causing the problem,” Morgan said in the April interview.

He recommended an aggressive expansion of the administration’s Remain in Mexico policy that forces some asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated in the U.S. He called for the policy to be implemented border-wide against asylum seekers at official entry points and those crossing between. The policy is currently in effect as a judge reviews it.

Morgan also said the administration should set up “port courts,” moving officials from their current posts to new ones “right on the border” to speed up processing of cases. That would help keep overwhelmed agencies that have maxed out of holding space from having to release large numbers of migrants, he argued.

The administration should also dramatically increase removals of people from the interior of the country, Morgan said — an effort he would oversee as head of ICE, which conducts raids away from the border.

“Democrats aren’t going to like it,” Morgan said, “but ramp up interior enforcement.”

As for suggestions by Trump that he might bring back a version of family separation, Morgan said, “No, I don’t think they’re going to go down that road.”

“Families are going to be apprehended and removed,” Morgan said under his proposals, “but not split.”

Amid concerns over a militarization of the border, Morgan told The Times in an interview last week that Trump’s latest deployment of roughly 320 military cooks, drivers and lawyers “makes sense.”

The new deployment marks the first time under Trump that troops will directly and regularly interact with migrants. Defense Department policy bars such direct interaction, and U.S. law prohibits troops from domestic law enforcement.

But Morgan said the move frees up Border Patrol agents — “highly trained gun toters” — many of whom are being pulled from their law enforcement role for “essentially childcare services.”

Still, he said of potential mission creep, “We need to keep an eye on that as a check and balance.”

Referring to the heated politics over immigration, Morgan said after Nielsen’s removal, “I think that anybody who takes on that role — especially in the border security arena — you’re in a no-win situation.”

“You’re not going to make anybody happy.”