US President Donald Trump on Sunday announced the departure of Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, underscoring his intent to toughen immigration policy amid a surge in illegal crossings along the southern border.
Nielsen’s exit marks the end of a difficult relationship with her boss, who was said to be unhappy with her performance despite her unswerving loyalty and full-throated defense of the president’s most controversial policies.
During her 18 months at the helm of the powerful agency, the 46-year-old became synonymous with the controversial practice of separating children from their parents, making her a frequent target of progressive groups and the Democratic opposition who repeatedly called on her to resign.
None of this, however, seems to have been enough for Trump.
“Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen will be leaving her position, and I would like to thank her for her service,” Trump tweeted Sunday.
He added US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan would become acting secretary.
“Despite our progress in reforming homeland security for a new age, I have determined that it is the right time for me to step aside,” Nielsen said in a resignation letter she later shared on Twitter.
The move came just two days after she and Trump visited the Mexican border in California together, with the president delivering a stern message to would-be illegal immigrants and asylum seekers: “Our country is full.”
Despite warnings of dire economic consequences, including by top Republicans, Trump has repeatedly threatened to close the US-Mexico border, demanding that Congress and Central American governments act to stem a flow of migrants that saw Nielsen last week order an “emergency surge” of personnel to handle the situation.
“System has been broken for many years. Democrats in Congress must agree to fix loopholes – No Open Borders (Crimes & Drugs). Will Close Southern Border If necessary…” he tweeted Sunday evening.
On Friday, US media reported that Trump also pulled his nominee to lead the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department — saying he wanted someone “tougher” at the helm of the Homeland Security sub-agency.
Together, the shake-ups were seen by observers as a sign the president wants to tack an even harder line.
Border Patrol estimates put the number of migrants passing through Mexico at over 100,000 in March, most from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala: the highest monthly figure in nearly a decade, according to Nielsen.
Trump cut aid to those three countries last month in response to the surge.
“When even the most radical voices in the administration aren’t radical enough for President Trump, you know he’s completely lost touch with the American people,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sunday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi added it was “deeply alarming that the Trump Administration official who put children in cages is reportedly resigning because she is not extreme enough for the White House’s liking.”
Nielsen initially joined the Trump administration in January 2017 as an assistant to Trump’s first DHS secretary, John Kelly. When Kelly moved to the White House as Trump’s chief of staff in July 2017, Nielsen went with him as his deputy.
But by October of that year she was back at DHS, this time as secretary. Disaster relief, cyber security, transportation security, the Coast Guard, customs and policing the borders all fall under the department’s purview.
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