Homeland Security acting head Kevin McAleenan resigns, leaving department at war with itself

Kevin McAleenan
As acting Homeland Security secretary, Kevin McAleenan implemented some of the Trump administration’s most extreme efforts to deter immigration.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

Kevin McAleenan, the acting Homeland Security secretary, is leaving President Trump’s administration, making the lawyer and former Obama official the latest departure in a long purge of leadership from the U.S. government’s third-largest department.

McAleenan leaves the Department of Homeland Security in turmoil, at war with the White House and itself over the Trump administration’s aggressive drive to restrict immigration, prioritizing it above the department’s other responsibilities, such as counter-terrorism and disaster response.

“We have worked well together with Border Crossings being way down,” Trump tweeted Friday, announcing McAleenan’s departure. “Kevin now, after many years in Government, wants to spend more time with his family and go to the private sector....”


The president added he’d be naming McAleenan’s replacement at Homeland Security next week. “Many wonderful candidates!”

Despite withstanding months of public sniping from the administration and clear policy disagreements with the president, McAleenan also proved an effective implementer of some of Trump’s most extreme initiatives to crack down at the border.

In a tweet following Trump’s, McAleenan referenced these results, and thanked the president. He reportedly submitted his resignation earlier Friday.

“With his support, over the last 6 months, we have made tremendous progress mitigating the border security and humanitarian crisis we faced this year,” McAleenan said. He added that he’d be working with the department and White House on a “smooth transition.”

Ultimately, McAleenan’s efforts weren’t enough for Trump. This reality was recently underscored when Trump refused to back down from a misstatement on Hurricane Dorian, forcing McAleenan, whose department also oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to hold up a doctored chart forecasting the storm’s path for cameras in the Oval Office. As McAleenan led Trump in a tour at the border late last month, other officials interjected to defend and praise the president.

Under McAleenan, Homeland Security has been beset by political infighting and frustration between border and immigration officials over the ever-changing directives from the White House and a surge in migrants at the U.S. southern border, current and former officials told the Los Angeles Times.


A Border Patrol agent who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly said morale has suffered as the department struggles to respond to the surge on the border this year. He did not fault McAleenan.

“Politicians have to come together and fix the problems with the immigration system,” the agent said, noting McAleenan served “at the request of the president.” Still, he said he hopes the churn at the department ends soon. “Ultimately, we do need stability with DHS.”

That churn has helped pit Homeland Security agencies against one another.

As U.S. Border Patrol stops more migrants at the border than it has in more than a decade, the administration has pulled Border Patrol agents from front-line patrols to keep watch on migrants at hospitals and overcrowded detention facilities, and pushed for agents to be trained on how to screen asylum seekers.

McAleenan’s department has also reassigned Customs and Border Protection officers who support and screen billions of dollars in commerce at airports and ports of entry, and sent the officers to support Border Patrol on the southern border.

Under intense pressure from the White House, a number of asylum officers at Citizenship and Immigration Services are quitting or refusing to implement policies that have forced more than 50,000 asylum seekers back to Mexico to await their U.S. cases.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement and administration officials are also anonymously criticizing Homeland Security leadership in the press. They blame McAleenan in large part for being forced to cancel a nationwide operation in June targeting thousands of families for deportation, though it was Trump who tweeted about it first. ICE soon after conducted the largest single raid in the agency’s history, in Mississippi — without giving advance notice to the White House, so the operation wouldn’t be foiled.

The administration has also deployed thousands of active-duty U.S. military personnel to the southern border in support of Homeland Security. Most of the soldiers operate Border Patrol radar trucks, from which they watch for border crossers they are not allowed to apprehend. And some have even been assigned to paint portions of the border barrier.

The Defense Department recently approved tapping into $3.6 billion among 127 projects to construct parts of the wall along the southern border. And yet, despite the president’s promises, Customs and Border Protection officials confirmed that no new miles of wall have been added to the roughly 700 total linear miles of existing border barrier since Trump took office.

A ‘tougher’ direction

In April, when the president picked McAleenan to replace his second Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, the then-Customs and Border Protection commissioner made for an interesting choice, given the president’s deep mistrust of Obama holdovers and McAleenan’s policy differences.

Trump said then he wanted to go in a “tougher” direction, though Nielsen had become the public face of family separation, a widely denounced policy. Her ousting kicked off a purge of top Homeland Security officials, leaving only “acting” personnel at the head of the department and every one of its major agencies. And yet McAleenan not only held on but moved up.

Now, McAleenan is expected to ultimately be replaced by Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, or immigration hard-liner Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services. The Vacancies Act prevents both from immediately stepping in to head the department ahead of other ranking officials.

Morgan, a former FBI agent, rose to Border Patrol chief under President Obama, before he was fired by John F. Kelly, Trump’s first Homeland Security secretary, shortly after Trump was elected. In recent months, amid rumors of McAleenan’s exit, Morgan has positioned himself as the more digestible replacement compared with Cuccinelli.

But that strategy may put Morgan at odds with the same hard-liners at the White House, and among the rank and file, who helped push out his predecessors.

Morgan left at the end of January 2017 with more than three decades of service — in the Marines, the Los Angeles Police Department, the FBI and several Homeland Security posts. He has also served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. In an announcement of his departure, McAleenan lauded Morgan’s “faithful service to the nation” for 31 years.

“I wish him every success in the future,” McAleenan wrote.

During a visit to the Texas border late last month, McAleenan welcomed reporters but remained mostly silent, allowing Morgan to do the talking. As they toured a new immigration tent court in Laredo, Morgan answered questions, vying for time in front of the cameras with the chiefs of ICE and Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“We cannot rely on other nations to solve our immigration problems,” Morgan insisted, adding that Central American leaders want that too, so that their citizens return. “What they say is ‘Fix your laws. That’s our future. We want them back.’”

Both Cuccinelli and Matthew Albence, ICE’s acting director, praised the Trump administration’s latest “aggressive” immigration regulations in late August while visiting the busiest stretch of border for illicit crossings in south Texas.

“He’s doing things and using tactics that none of his predecessors were willing to use, Republican or Democrat, and lo and behold, many of them are working,” Cuccinelli said at an event this summer sponsored by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

The recent regulations are part of Trump’s concerted strategy to keep immigration front and center as he kicks off his reelection campaign for 2020.

In August alone, the administration rolled out new regulations on the so-called public charge rule intended to punish immigrants and their families who use public benefits. (That rule was blocked on Friday ahead of Trump’s announcement.) And another rule would roll back decades-old protections for migrant children under the Flores agreement, enabling the government to detain them and their families indefinitely.

That rule was similarly recently blocked, but the White House was reportedly frustrated with McAleenan and his aides for not making more of its unveiling, for fulfilling a long-held administration goal. A close McAleenan aide confirmed his resignation shortly after the rule’s announcement, citing micromanagement from the White House, according to Axios.

‘No-win situation’

When Trump chose McAleenan to replace Nielsen, observers expressed surprise that the anti-immigration advocates holding the president’s ear, namely policy advisor Stephen Miller, had acquiesced to a lawyer whom Obama awarded the country’s highest honor for civil service in 2015.

McAleenan, 48, raised in Los Angeles and with degrees from the University of Chicago and Amherst College, had tried to join the FBI after the 9/11 attacks, but was recruited for Customs and Border Protection instead, where he worked on counter-terrorism programs and served as director for Los Angeles International Airport, according to the Washington Post.

First as Trump’s Customs and Border Protection commissioner and then as acting Homeland Security secretary, McAleenan has made extensive overtures to counterparts in Mexico and Central America. Even as the White House threatened to slap tariffs on Mexico, one of the United States’ largest trade partners, and to freeze aid to Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” the region responsible for a majority of the migration to the U.S. border, McAleenan has argued that such assistance is critical to stabilizing the region and stemming outward migration.

After replacing Nielsen, Trump told McAleenan he’d pardon him if he faced legal challenges for closing the U.S.-Mexico border, according to NBC. McAleenan has denied those reports and others in which the president purportedly pushed his officials to test legal boundaries. But McAleenan also reportedly prepared to resign in June over undercutting from other White House officials and subordinate Homeland Security personnel.

Still, McAleenan has also overseen some of the most substantial shifts to U.S. immigration and security policy in decades, and invited his own controversy.

McAleenan was one of three Homeland Security officials who wrote a confidential memo to Nielsen in April of last year, urging her to detain and prosecute all parents crossing the border with children, hastening family separations. They pointed to an El Paso pilot program, begun by Customs and Border Protection, claiming it had reduced illegal crossings by families by 64%.

He later withdrew his support for the policy, saying in April 2019: “It does deter behavior, but it did not work if you lose public trust. From an enforcement perspective, it’s not worth it.”

Despite a court ruling and orders from the White House to end the practice, family separation has continued.

McAleenan also led the agency amid a spate of deaths of migrants in its custody, including a number of children. In one case, McAleenan testified before Congress after being notified of a child’s death but did not report it to lawmakers, as is legally required, until days later, when the Washington Post had already revealed it.

Homeland Security under McAleenan has also come under criticism for redirecting resources away from and deemphasizing a growing threat of domestic terrorism fueled by right-wing, anti-government and racist ideologies.

On Aug. 3, a man believed to have posted a racist manifesto online that echoed the president’s rhetoric toward immigrants drove hundreds of miles to El Paso, authorities say, and opened fire, killing 22 and wounding at least 26 more. Federal investigators have called the attack domestic terrorism.

“We need to invest more,” McAleenan said of department efforts to counter domestic terrorism threats, following the attack.

Under McAleenan, Homeland Security also ramped up the Remain in Mexico policy, forcing more than 50,000 asylum seekers back to Mexico to await their U.S. cases, according to department reports obtained by The Times. McAleenan helped secure an agreement with Mexico in June to expand the Remain in Mexico policy borderwide, and for Mexico to deploy thousands of newly formed National Guard units to its southern and northern border to step up enforcement.

His frequent outreach to Mexico and Central America also yielded a deal with Guatemala in late July, that, if approved, could essentially end most asylum claims at the U.S. southern border. Guatemala’s highest court ruled that the outgoing president could not enter into such an agreement. McAleenan has since penned similar agreements with El Salvador and Honduras, none of which have gone into effect.

It may not matter — a federal appeals court recently lifted a nationwide injunction against a previous rule, announced by the Trump administration July 15, that renders ineligible for asylum any migrant who passed through another country before reaching the U.S. southern border and did not claim asylum there first. The administration touted the decision, which enables the policy to be implemented along Mexico’s border with California and Arizona, as a partial victory.

In recent months, as tensions between the White House and McAleenan rose, so did friction between the acting Homeland Security secretary and Morgan, Trump’s acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner.

Morgan worked his way back into Trump’s graces in large part due to Fox News appearances in which he praised the president and took a harder line on immigration and border security that surprised some former and current colleagues. In May, the president announced Morgan would take over ICE in an acting capacity. In June, Trump tapped him again to lead Customs and Border Protection.

In late June, McAleenan held a news conference at Homeland Security headquarters in Washington to applaud Congress passing a bill that provided additional funding for the department. He also disputed the reports of ill treatment of children in his department’s custody amid a widening scandal over unsanitary conditions.

Homeland Security officials were scrambling until the last minute to figure out whether Morgan was coming. A yellow Post-It note with his name indicated he would stand next to McAleenan on stage. Morgan never showed.

For his part, Morgan acknowledged in an interview with The Times shortly after Nielsen’s ousting that Homeland Security secretary may be an impossible job in the Trump administration, given the heated politics over immigration.

“I think that anybody who takes on that role — especially in the border security arena — you’re in a no-win situation,” he said. “You’re not going to make anybody happy.”