Kirstjen Nielsen Out as DHS Secretary in Big Security Shakeup

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen resigned on Sunday amid mounting pressure and criticism from President Trump concerning the immigration crisis along the southern border. Nielsen is among several other security personnel who have recently been pushed out by the administration, which seemingly is moving in a more hard-line direction on immigration and homeland security. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan will step in as acting secretary.


Nielsen, who has served as the Secretary since December 2017, has repeatedly endured criticism from President Trump over her tenure. According to the New York Times, Trump would berate her in cabinet meetings for not doing enough to stop in the influx of migrants across the southern border. She reportedly drafted a resignation letter in May 2018, but decided to stay, then nearly resigned again in November after the midterm elections. As the Secretary of Homeland Security, Nielsen was in charge of implementing the administration’s immigration policy, most notably the zero-tolerance policy from April to June 2018 that included the separation of families apprehended at the border.


The last few months, in particular, were tumultuous for Nielsen, as the number of border apprehensions rose to the highest levels in over a decade. An estimated 100,000 migrants crossed the border seeking asylum in March, pushing the number of illegal immigrants to 12 million nationwide. This uptick in illegal immigration prompted President Trump to put further pressure on Nielsen, especially with immigration being a major focus of the administration as well as the media and the American people.  


Nielsen’s departure represents a change in the direction of the Department of Homeland Security. In addition to Nielsen, Trump dismissed Secret Service Director Randolph Alles on Monday, and recently withdrew his nomination of Ronald Vitiello for the Director of Immigration, Customs, and Enforcement (ICE). US Citizenship and Immigration Services director Francis Cissna is also rumored to be on the hot seat, next in line for departure. This purge of top immigration and security officials signals a shift in immigration policy, with President Trump recently stating that he wants to take ICE in a “tougher direction”. The White House is taking a more radical approach, seeking to make deportations easier, asylum more difficult to receive, and potentially return to the family separation policy. President Trump also recently cut billions of dollars in assistance to Latin American countries where many of the illegal immigrants are coming from. Last week, Trump pushed to shut down the border entirely, a position he has since backed off of due to the economic and political impact of such a move. These actions point to the increased behind-the-scenes influence of Stephen Miller, the President’s top immigration aide, and a staunch immigration hardliner. Politico states that he is the driving force behind the removal of top security personnel and the shift in policy direction.


While illegal immigration remains in the forefront, Trump’s son-in-law and Special Advisor Jared Kushner has been quietly working on a plan to increase legal immigration for high-skilled workers. Since January, Kushner has been meeting with businesses and advocacy groups and working with a small team, according to Politico. He is specifically focused on increasing temporary status for immigrants with PhDs to allow them to stay in the United States and improve American education in math, science, technology, and engineering. He may face an uphill battle getting congress to pass such a policy, as the Democratic majority in the House is seeking comprehensive immigration reform would not approve of his isolated proposal without it being part of such a larger reform.


Nielsen’s replacement, Kevin McAleenan, served as the Deputy Commissioner of the USCBP during President Obama’s administration. He won the Presidential Rank Award in 2015, the highest honor for a civil service officer. Many in the government are surprised at McAleenan’s appointment, as DHS Deputy Secretary Claire Grady is naturally next in the line of succession after Nielsen. Additionally, McAleenan, like Nielsen, has been criticized by Trump for not doing enough to resolve the current situation at the southern border. He is not an ideologue on immigration policy, but rather a civil officer who serve the President and implement the administration’s policy rather than run the show himself.


Nielsen is the thirteenth member of the Trump Administration to depart in the two-plus years since he took office. It is unclear where she will go next, but she will likely have to grapple with  her legacy as the face of the family separation policy.


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