President Donald Trump’s pick for acting Homeland Security secretary after the rocky 16-month tenure of Kirstjen Nielsen ended with her resignation, is already drawing criticism amid calls for an “outsider” to lead the department that oversees immigration policy.
Trump named Kevin McAleenan, U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner, to serve as acting replacement for Nielsen just days after saying the administration must go in a ”tougher direction” as illegal border crossings had increased.
“President Trump must move quickly to name a strong, respected outsider for this role,” said RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to reduce immigration. “We’ve seen what happens when he trusts immigration neophytes and Obama administration holdovers to implement his agenda.”
Nielsen will be leaving her position after a difficult tenure in which she often bore the brunt of some of Trump’s harshest criticism.
McAleenan was sworn in on March 20, 2018, as commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection after having served as acting commissioner since the beginning of the Trump administration.
He is already drawing scrutiny for his ties to the Obama administration, in which he was deputy commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
But previously McAleenan had received high praise from both past Republican and Democratic administrations. In a letter to Congress obtained by ABC News expressing “enthusiastic support” for McAleenan’s nomination to lead U.S. Customs and Border Protection, officials from both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations called McAleenan “supremely qualified.”
“....I am pleased to announce that Kevin McAleenan, the current U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, will become Acting Secretary for @DHSgov. I have confidence that Kevin will do a great job!,” Trump tweeted Sunday.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, who speaks regularly with the administration, said it’s unclear whether McAleenan is a temporary or permanent replacement. She cited his immigration experience as an improvement, but said “it remains to be seen if he understands interior enforcement and the legal systems.”
Trump won the GOP nomination and the presidency in 2016 by campaigning on a promise to crack down on immigration, build a border wall and end an Obama-era program that offered the so-called Dreamers temporary, renewable work permits. He took some executive actions, though several, including those that would deny asylum to immigrants who cross the southern border illegally and withhold funds from so-called sanctuary cities, are tied up in courts.
Nielsen has pushed for Trump’s policies, including finding money for a border wall and implementing a zero tolerance policy at the border. But Trump still has blamed her for a spike in the number of asylum-seekers from Central America and the number of immigrants arrested along the Mexican border. More than 50,000 people were stopped at the border in October, the highest monthly total since 2014.
In her resignation letter, Nielsen appeared to put the responsibility on Congress for failing to provide adequate tools to protect the border.
“Despite our progress in reforming homeland security for a new age, I have determined that it is the right time for me to step aside,” Nielsen wrote in her resignation letter. “I hope that the next Secretary will have the support of Congress and the courts in fixing the laws which have impeded our ability to fully secure America’s borders and which have contributed to discord in our nation’s discourse.”
Vaughan called Nielsen’s departure “overdue.”
“Ms. Nielsen was a quick study, but she had neither the gravitas nor the experience to do the job. She failed to prevent the border influx from becoming a crisis, and then failed to act like it was really a crisis. Begging Congress to act was not the right strategy.”
Last year, Trump criticized Nielsen for not being as “tough” as he wanted. “I like her a lot. I respect her a lot. She’s very smart,” Trump told FOX News. “I want her to get much tougher, and we’ll see what happens there. But I want to be extremely tough.”
Congress has repeatedly failed to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws despite Trump’s constant urging, dozens of meetings between Trump aides and lawmakers and a presidential-imposed deadline last March. He suggested lawmakers pass a package of laws that would both give young immigrants brought to the country illegally a chance at citizenship and slash legal immigration.
Trump has spoken repeatedly about what he considers a threat from several thousand migrants making their way from Central America through Mexico toward the U.S. border on foot.
“Trump wants a DHS secretary to magically stop international migration — and no living human being can,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group. “Trump would rather yell at his staff than size up the magnitude of the challenge.”
Potential candidates for the top homeland security position in the administration include Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Thomas Homan, the former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who is reportedly being considered for a new immigration czar position.
Conservative voices have pushed previously for Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, and former U.S. Attorney Peter Nunez, chairman of the board of the Center for Immigration Studies.
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.