Kevin McAleenan will step down as acting Homeland Security secretary after serving a six-month tenure that often frustrated top officials in the Trump administration, including the president himself.
McAleenan's departure comes amid a rolling leadership shake-up at the department as President Donald Trump looks to make good on his 2016 campaign pledge to crack down on immigration as he faces a tough bid for a second term in office.
He oversaw a recent reduction in the number of migrants caught at the southwest border, a measure used to estimate illegal crossings. But he was criticized by Trump allies inside and outside the administration who complained he wasn't sufficiently committed to the president’s immigration agenda. Trump never nominated him for the permanent job.
“No one’s sad about it,” said an administration official familiar with the situation. "How many times do we have to do this before someone realizes it actually matters who heads these agencies?"
Trump did not announce a new DHS secretary but said he would choose from “many wonderful candidates” next week.
Next in line to become acting secretary is David Pekoske, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, who has also been serving as acting deputy secretary at DHS. But acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli, an immigration hardliner new to the administration who has direct access to Trump, appears to be the leading candidate to replace him, according to several people familiar with the situation. Cuccinelli, however, would have a tough time getting confirmed even in the Republican-led Senate.
"The choice is clear, he must elevate Ken Cuccinelli," said RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors immigration restrictions. "The president understands that the opposition seeks to stop his efforts to secure the border and restore control over our nation’s immigration system through court orders and injunctions. What better force to stop this than the former attorney general of Virginia and one of the most skilled appellate lawyers in the country?"
Another frequently mentioned candidate is Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.
Trump tweeted that McAleenan would leave the federal government to spend more time with his family late Friday just as Air Force One touched down in Louisiana for a Make American Great Again rally.
"Kevin McAleenan has done an outstanding job as Acting Secretary of Homeland Security," the president tweeted. "We have worked well together with Border Crossings being way down.”
In recent days, McAleenan gave an unusually blunt interview to the Washington Post in which he said he was frustrated by other immigration appointees and wasn’t able to keep the department from being used for a partisan immigration agenda.
"I want to thank the president for the opportunity to serve alongside the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security," McAleenan tweeted Friday night. "With his support, over the last 6 months, we have made tremendous progress mitigating the border security and humanitarian crisis we faced this year."
Six other top department officials have resigned or been pushed out since April, including former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. With McAleenan’s exit, Trump will have cycled through four DHS chiefs in less than three years. Many of the department‘s senior leadership positions remain vacant or filled by acting officials.
“Today's ouster of the acting secretary further highlights that President Trump continues to decimate the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security. "This will only add to the chaos for a Department where there are chronically too many leadership vacancies and positions held by unconfirmed, ‘acting’ officials.
The change comes as Trump gears up for his 2020 reelection campaign. Trump has signaled that immigration will be a central focus of his appeal to voters and has taken a number of steps in recent months to limit access to asylum and intensify enforcement within the U.S.
The administration in July issued a bar on asylum seekers who pass through another country en route to the U.S., a restriction aimed at blocking Central American migrants traveling north. Last month, the Supreme Court allowed the policy to be implemented pending the outcome of a court challenge.
In a significant setback for the president's immigration agenda, three federal judges in New York, Washington state, and California blocked a regulation Friday set to take effect next week that permits immigration officials to deny green cards to immigrants who receive certain government benefits.
The administration has forced more than 48,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to wait in Mexico pending the outcome of their U.S. cases under a policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols. While the Trump administration credits the “remain in Mexico” expansion for helping diminish the flow at the border, advocates contend it strands vulnerable migrants in dangerous border towns.
Border arrests soared earlier this year to levels not seen in a decade, a phenomenon that stretched federal resources. The Trump administration, with McAleeanan at the forefront, argued to members of Congress that the migrant flow had caused a humanitarian crisis at the border that required additional funding.
Democrats criticized the administration’s approach to enforcement and blasted reports of dangerous and overcrowded conditions for migrant children and adults held in border processing centers. Still, the Democrat-led House joined the Republican-led Senate to pass a $4.6 billion emergency border spending package in June.
McAleenan, a top border official under former President Barack Obama, became acting commissioner of CBP during the start of the Trump administration and was confirmed to the role in March 2018.
"His tenure as secretary is dotted with overwhelming crisis and uncertainty," said Ronald Vitiello, former acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement director. "He realized unprecedented cooperation with Mexico and northern triangle partners. The border is safer because of his skill and Trump’s threats of tariffs. He supported border security since 9/11 and we all owe him our gratitude for his dedication to protecting the Homeland.”
McAleelan saw border arrests bottom out at the start of Trump’s tenure — what some called “the Trump effect” — only to rebound and surge again this year.
Border Patrol arrested nearly 133,000 migrants at the southwest border in May, the biggest monthly total since March 2006. With migrants flooding in, Trump threatened to hammer Mexico with tariffs unless it increased efforts to stem the flow. Mexico agreed in June to deploy 6,000 members of its newly formed National Guard to intercept migrants heading north. At the same time, the U.S. moved to expand its “remain in Mexico“ program border-wide.
Border arrests dropped to roughly 51,000 in August, a major decrease that experts partly attributed to the new enforcement measures.
While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo negotiated the Mexico deal, McAleenan oversaw the department’s implementation of the asylum clampdown and other counter-migration measures.
Following the Mexico agreement, McAleenan joined Trump in July to announce an asylum deal with Guatemala that would require that country to accept asylum seekers who passed through its territory while traveling to the U.S. He struck similar agreements with El Salvador and Honduras in September, although none of the three pacts have been implemented.
Pro-migrant advocates and Democrats blasted the agreements, which they argued would send asylum seekers to some of the most dangerous countries in the hemisphere.
McAleenan faced partisan pressure when ProPublica in July uncovered a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents. Members of the group mocked the death of a detained teenage migrant and posted obscene illustrations of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), among other offensive comments and images.
Although McAleenan swiftly condemned the posts, POLITICO later reported that CBP officials had been aware of the group for up to three years.
"He just was never a good fit," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies. "His policy interests were not aligned with the president's. The border disaster occurred and worsened on his watch and he had to be pushed and cajoled to do what was needed to fix it. He was supposed to deliver Democrat cooperation to fix the border policies, but he couldn't even do that."