New book says Homeland Security acting head McAleenan pushed family separation policy for migrants

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan was one of the drivers of the Trump administration’s now abandoned policy of separating migrant families at the southern border — a position he has since disavowed as “not worth” the ensuing public relations disaster — according to a new book on the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

In their book, “Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration,” New York Times correspondents Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael Shear offer a detailed look at the evolution of the administration’s decision to separate migrant families as a means of deterring Central American migrants from attempting to seek asylum at the southern border.

McAleenan was serving as commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection when Border Patrol and the Justice Department, under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, first conducted a secret test of the family separation practice in the El Paso sector of the southwest border between July and November 2017. In April 2018, then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen received an official policy memo urging the widespread implementation of family separations along the southwest border. The memo was signed by McAleenan, Francis Cissna, then head of U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, and Tom Homan, then acting ICE director.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Davis and Shear describe Nielsen’s personal ambivalence over whether to sign off on the practice, a drastic break with longstanding DHS policy to not refer parents caught crossing the border with minor children for criminal prosecution. Ultimately, they write, “Nielsen finally gave in at the beginning of May, after a morning of relentless calls from McAleenan, Homan and others.”

Protesters interrupt a speech by McAleenan at the Immigration Law and Policy Conference in Washington, Oct. 7, 2019. (Photo: Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

More than 2,000 families were separated before mounting public outrage and a federal judge’s order forced the administration to abandon the policy.

McAleenan, who became acting head of DHS after Nielsen resigned last April, has since publicly described family separations as “not worth it” due to the loss of public trust it caused the department. He has denied reports that Trump is seeking to reimpose the controversial policy.

This week, protesters against the administration's hard-line immigration agenda prevented McAleenan from delivering a speech at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute’s annual Immigration Law and Policy Conference. The DHS later released McAleenan’s prepared remarks, in which he’d planned to defend the administration’s controversial response to the influx of families and children at the southern border.

Though he has been a key figure in carrying out the administration’s agenda on the border, a recent Washington Post profile described McAleenan, a career official who has not been formally nominated for the role of DHS secretary, as “an outsider in Trump World” who has become increasingly uncomfortable with the politicization of the DHS.

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