Kevin McAleenan, the current commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection will temporarily lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the wake of DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s resignation. Unlike Nielsen, McAleenan has openly rebuked President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
After Trump’s Muslim Ban went into effect in early 2017, McAleenan got DHS to authorize his authority to grant waivers to immigrant and non-immigrant visa holders trapped in airports as a result of the executive order. According to the inspector general report on the Muslim Ban, McAleenan got very involved and granted waiver requests as fast as he could.
“Based on our review of waiver requests that were elevated to McAleenan between 7:45 and 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, McAleenan approved nine unique waiver requests an average of 3.25 minutes after the requests reached his inbox,” the report reads. “By 2:30 p.m., the Acting Commissioner had approved approximately 75 national interest waivers for [immigrant visa] and [non-immigrant visa] holders.”
While Trump threatened to cut aid to Central American countries in response to an influx of asylum-seeking families from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, McAleenan repeatedly stressed the importance of aid to address the “root causes” of migration.
Speaking in December about Central American security and migration, McAleenan said at a panel hosted by the Council of the Americas that he and his colleagues have been “very mindful of ensuring that these investments are targeted and that they’re making an impact for U.S. policy” and “reducing migration flows” to the U.S.-Mexico border.
In July, McAleenan told the Bipartisan Policy Center that the United States should not “shy away from investing heavily in our partnerships in Central America.”
“We’ve got three good partners in the administrations there,” he said. “If you look at El Salvador, the migration level from El Salvador has reduced 65 percent this year. What they’re doing is working both on the security front and on the economic opportunity front […] We want to achieve those same successes in Honduras and Guatemala as well.”
While these more pragmatic immigration positions have scored him some brownie points with the press and will likely put him at odds with Trump, McAleenan has also been complicit in some of the administration’s most draconian policies.
In December, two young children under the age of the seven died in CBP custody, including Jakelin Caal Maquin from Guatemala. McAleenan failed to notify Congress of Jakelin’s death days before he faced questioning from the Senate Judiciary Committee where he could have been pressed on the issue. An autopsy report showed Jakelin died from an infection known as streptococcal sepsis. It took 90 minutes for her to receive medical care from CBP agents after her father notified officials of her symptoms.
According to McAleenan, the reasoning behind that decision was to not “politicize” the death.
At a separate Senate Judiciary hearing in March, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) pressed McAleenan on reports of child abuse at immigrant youth shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services and its contractors.
“Do you believe that you have any duty, or that your agency has any duty to ensure that when you transfer these children to the custody to another agency that they will be safe?” asked Harris.
“I am mandated by law to transfer these children,” McAleenan deflected. “I don’t have an ability to question it.”
Nielsen’s resignation comes as apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border have yet to reach its yearly high. According to CBP data, apprehensions typically peak in May.
As the agency prepares for this time of year, McAleenan will join the six other “acting” officials at DHS. Last week, President Trump pulled the nomination of Ron Vitiello to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in favor of someone “tougher.” White House senior advisor Stephen Miller, who has a history of using anti-immigrant and white supremacist dog-whistles, reportedly suggested the change to Trump. Other top immigration officials rumored to be on their way out include the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Lee Cissna, Secret Service director Randolph Alles, and John Mitnik, the agency’s general counsel.
The slimmed-down DHS staff is emblematic of Trump’s patchwork cabinet, which is full of acting directors and acting secretaries after a series of resignations and firings.