Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned on Sunday, freeing the Trump administration to potentially replace her with someone even more hardline.
In a tweet following an evening meeting with Nielsen, President Donald Trump said, “Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen will be leaving her position, and I would like to thank her for her service.”
“I am pleased to announce that Kevin McAleenan, the current U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, will become Acting Secretary for [DHS],” he added in a follow up. “I have confidence that Kevin will do a great job.”
Nielsen, who was handpicked by former DHS secretary and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to be his successor, has long had a contentious relationship with the president. Reports of Trump verbally berating her in cabinet meetings and rumors that he was unhappy with her performance as DHS secretary often made headlines, and the two frequently contradicted one another in public statements.
Trump leveraged Nielsen as a scapegoat for all of his immigration concerns, blaming her for what he claimed was a surge in illegal border crossings since his election. According to The Wall Street Journal, in the months leading up to her departure, the president became “particularly unhappy” with the secretary, privately criticizing her supposed “failure to sufficiently reduce the number of migrants seeking asylum from violence in Central America.”
Trump also blamed Nielsen for the lack of progress on his biggest campaign promise: a U.S.-Mexico border wall, which he initially promised would be paid for by Mexico and for which he more recently failed to secure funding from Congress.
“I respect her a lot. She’s very smart,” Trump said of Nielsen during an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace last fall. “I want her to get much tougher and we’ll see what happens there. But I want to be extremely tough.”
Nielsen was not, however, a rogue Cabinet member. Instead, the secretary willingly enforced the president’s abusive immigration policies, pushing family separations at the border and lying about it for months.
That policy resulted in thousands of parents being forcibly separated from their children with no concrete plan on how to reunite them. Hundreds of parents were deported back to their countries of origin while their children were held in detention centers that left them in a state of psychological distress. Even after reuniting with their parents, some children remained inconsolable, wanting to know why their mother or father had abandoned them in such horrible conditions, or were detached entirely, unresponsive to their parents’ emotions. Some tried to escape their mothers’ or fathers’ embraces. Others pretended they were detention guards, handcuffing their friends.
Despite this, Nielsen — who repeatedly and falsely claimed the administration did not have a family separation policy — was often undercut by Trump, who defended the policy vigorously, contradicting Nielsen in the process.
Nielsen also spearheaded dangerous policies like Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” that is actively harming asylum seekers from Central America in particular.
Rumors from as far back as November suggested former Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Thomas Homan could take Nielsen’s place on a permanent basis. Homan, who regularly defended the family separation crisis on Fox News and CNN, seems like a natural pick for Trump, who above all else, values a Cabinet member that can say nice things about him on cable television and is willing to push his hardline anti-immigration rhetoric.
President Trump has also suggested that he would appoint former Kansas Secretary of State and failed senate candidate Kris Kobach as his immigration czar. Speaking to Breitbart News Saturday, Kobach argued that the administration could bypass Congress and implement hardline immigration policies like overturning the Flores Settlement, which would allow for the indefinite detention of migrant children.
With the 2020 election on the horizon and a base historically mobilized by racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric, Trump likely views Nielsen’s departure as a way to install someone at DHS who would faithfully execute his draconian policies and help him win reelection. With CBP Commissioner McAleenan at the helm, that scenario seems more and more likely. Like Nielsen, McAleenan hasn’t been forthcoming about the administration’s immigration policies either. He failed to disclose details to Congress surrounding the death of a young migrant child in CBP custody so as not to face tough questioning during an oversight hearing.