Washington: Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen is leaving her post, President Trump announced Sunday as he continues to focus on restricting border crossings amid a recent surge. Nielsen had recently warned a congressional panel of a “catastrophe” on the Southern border after the number of crossings hit a 10-year high.
Trump confirmed the news in a tweet, saying, “I would like to thank her for her service.”
Trump said Kevin McAleenan, the current commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, would serve as acting secretary. The change at the top comes with other uncertainty over management at the Department of Homeland Security. The president on Friday dropped his nominee to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Ronald Vitiello, telling reporters, “We want to go in a tougher direction.”
Often the primary person working to turn Trump’s harsh immigration rhetoric into policy, Nielsen has faced intense scrutiny. As recently as March, she faced tough questioning from House Democrats over the treatment of migrants, especially children, at the Southern border.
Nielsen is Trump’s second secretary of homeland security, taking over the cabinet post in December 2017 after John Kelly became White House chief of staff. Nielsen had worked as a top aide to Kelly at both DHS and the White House.
Her tenure was marked throughout by tensions with Trump, who reportedly lashed out at her several times because illegal border crossings have not been stopped. Nielsen faced more public pressure after the Trump administration enacted a policy of family separation that resulted in thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents, which the president ultimately reversed.
Nielsen’s departure comes more than a year after she was confirmed to take over the post from John Kelly when he became the president’s chief of staff. She served as Kelly’s chief of staff before her Cabinet-level promotion.
Nielsen oversaw the DHS through a number of highly scrutinized actions on immigration policy, including the zero-tolerance approach to separating migrant children from their parents. Under the policy, the Trump administration sought to prosecute all adults who crossed the border illegally and more widely implement the child separation policy that previous administrations used more sparingly.
The policy over the spring and summer of 2018 left thousands of migrant children separated from parents and housed in tent cities. Criticism of the separations prompted Trump to sign an executive order ending the practice in June, though in October he said he was “looking at everything” when asked if he was considering a new family separation policy.
Last month, Nielsen wrote an “urgent request” to Congress to grant the DHS resources and new powers to deport unaccompanied minors back to their home countries.
Under Nielsen’s tenure, DHS also issued a new rule with the Department of Justice preventing people who cross the border illegally from seeking asylum. Trump signed a proclamation enforcing the rule last week.
Under the new order, immigrants who cross illegally will be be held in detention until deportation, ending the “release” portion of the United States’s so-called “catch and release” policy in which migrants are arrested and then freed pending a court date.
Nielsen previously worked in DHS as a senior legislative policy director for Transportation and Security Administration under President George W. Bush. In Bush’s administration, she also served as special assistant to the president and senior director for prevention, preparedness and response on the White House Homeland Security Council.
She has also faced fierce criticism from within and outside the department, which is the subject of numerous House subpoenas and more than 20 investigations by the agency’s own inspector general.
“Hampered by misstep after misstep, Kirstjen Nielsen’s tenure at the Department of Homeland Security was a disaster from the start,” Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement.
“It is clearer now than ever that the Trump administration’s border security and immigration policies — that she enacted and helped craft — have been an abysmal failure and have helped create the humanitarian crisis at the border,” he said.
McAleenan, who was confirmed as head of CBP, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, in March 2018, was the agency’s deputy commissioner during President Barack Obama’s administration.
His confirmation to head CBP was delayed for more than three months as allegations emerged that anonymous accusers had alleged that McAleenan had an affair with a subordinate and bypassed proper channels to fund an immigration detention center. DHS’ inspector general cleared him of wrongdoing at the time.
CBP came under investigation by the House Homeland Security Committee last month after reports that it had compiled a list of 59 reporters, lawyers and activists, most of them U.S. citizens, who were to be stopped for questioning crossing the U.S.-Mexican border at San Diego-area checkpoints. At least 21 of them have been stopped and questioned or arrested.
“CBP does not target journalists for inspection based on their occupation or their reporting,” the agency responded. “CBP has policies in place that prohibit discrimination against arriving travelers and has specific provisions regarding encounters with journalists.”
Speaker Pelosi issues statement on Sec. Nielsen’s departure as DHS secretary: “It is deeply alarming that the Trump Administration official who put children in cages is reportedly resigning because she is not extreme enough for the White House’s liking.”