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Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen 'leaving her position'

The sometimes contentious relationship between Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of Homeland Security, and President Donald Trump is drawing to a close, with the president tweeting Sunday that she is "leaving her position."

Nielsen frequently expressed more moderate views on border and immigration issues than Trump, even as the Republican president has elevated his rhetoric about the U.S.-Mexico border and the increase in Central Americans seeking asylum in this country.

Kevin McAleenan, the current commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, will serve as acting DHS secretary, Trump tweeted Sunday afternoon. But Democrats were quick to point out that Trump's plans may well violate the law, which require a DHS undersecretary to assume the role.

Friday, Trump ditched his push to elevate Ronald Vitiello, the former head of the Border Patrol and CBP, to be the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He's been the acting commissioner of ICE since last June. Monday, Trump moved to remove another top DHS staffer: Secret Service Director Randolph "Tex" Ailes."

ICE conducts immigration enforcement inside the United States, while CBP oversees border crossings and the Border Patrol carries out enforcement between the ports of entry. All three agencies fall under the Department of Homeland Security.

"There is a near-systematic purge happening at the nation's second-largest national security agency," a senior administration official told CNN.

Nielsen "will be leaving her position, and I would like to thank her for her service," Trump tweeted after meeting with with DHS chief at the White House on Sunday. "I am pleased to announce that Kevin McAleenan, the current U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, will become Acting Secretary for @DHSgov. I have confidence that Kevin will do a great job!," he wrote.

Neilsen had just undertaken a high-profile tour of the southwest border, with stops in El Paso and Yuma, and an appearance with Trump in Calexico, Calif., on Friday.

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DHS released a statement touting that trip on Sunday, before the announcement that Nielsen was leaving her post.

Trump had in recent weeks threatened to "shut down" the border with Mexico, if that country didn't stem the flow of migrants into the U.S. After earning backing from some high-profile Republicans for the idea (such as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey), even though others voiced skepticism, Trump dropped the idea Friday and shifted focus, saying he'll first impose tariffs after a year if Mexico doesn't halt the flow of illegal drugs across the border.

Although Nielsen just days ago signed an agreement — framed by DHS as a "historic regional compact" — to work with the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to stem migration, Trump the very next day announced that the U.S. would cut aid to those Central American nations because "they haven't done a thing for us."

Nielsen's DHS a 'key cog' for Trump

Despite Nielsen's rocky tenure — she was reportedly ready to resign after being berated by Trump during a Cabinet meeting last May — administration opponents still criticized her actions after she was pushed out Sunday.

Nielsen was a "willing foot-soldier who implemented his horrific policies that destroyed families and left a dark stain on the conscience of our nation," U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva said Monday morning.

"Under her watch and orders, children were ripped from their mothers' arms at the border and were never reunified with their parents. While her departure is welcome, I am resigned to the fact that Trump will pick a new DHS secretary with the same extremism and xenophobia that reflect his rhetoric and worldview," the Tucson Democrat said in a statement released by his office.

Grijalva's fellow Tucson Democrat criticized Nielsen's "failure to stand up for our American values."

Nielsen "defended Trump's inhumane policies of separating families at the border, putting children in cages and mischaracterizing activity at the border," U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick said. "Reports of the Trump administration looking for someone even more radical to double down on these inhumane policies should be alarming to all of us, especially those of us so close to the border."

The offices of U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally did not respond to requests for comment Sunday on Neilsen's departure from her post.

Calling her time as DHS chief a "a sad and shameful chapter in the agency's history," ACLU political director Ronald Newman said she "oversaw gross civil rights and civil liberties violations that will go down as among the worst failures in Trump's chaotic presidency."

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"From the family separation crisis she created and defended, to the restricting of immigrants' rights to seek asylum, to the relentless yet pointless efforts to build Trump's border wall, and so many other egregious actions, Nielsen allowed the department to serve as the key cog in Trump's unconstitutional and anti-immigrant agenda of fear, rather than protecting Americans," he said.

"The fact that Kevin McAleenan will serve as acting secretary provides no reassurance," Newman said in an ACLU news release. "He has been key in implementing Trump and Nielsen's unconscionable policies and has overseen countless of Border Patrol's abuses."

Nielsen sent a farewell note to the "brave and dedicated men and women of @DHSgov" on Sunday evening, saying that she is "eternally grateful and proud of what you do each and everyday to protect our homeland - each of you are why I came back to serve my country."

"Our missions as a Department are vast and have never been more vital. You are in the arena - keep up the good fight," Nielsen wrote.

In her resignation letter, Nielsen wrote "I hope that the next Secretary will have the support of Congress and the courts in fixing the laws which have impeded our ability to fully secure America's borders and which have contributed to discord in our nation's discourse."

Succession plan may be blocked by law

Despite Trump's announcement that CBP's McAleenan will be the acting DHS secretary, Democrats pointed out that federal law would bar that action.

"The law of succession at the department is clear — the under secretary for Management shall serve as the acting secretary if the secretary and deputy secretary are unavailable," House Homeland Security Chairman Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) wrote to Trump.

"Specifically, the law reads: Notwithstanding chapter 33 of title 5, United States Code, the Under Secretary for Management shall serve as the Acting Secretary if by reason of absence, disability, or vacancy in office, neither the Secretary nor Deputy Secretary is available to exercise the duties of the Office of the Secretary," he wrote.

Claire M. Grady, the under secretary for Management since August 2017, has been serving as the acting deputy secretary of DHS, Thompson pointed out.

Border agencies overwhelmed by asylum-seekers

The recent increase in the number of Central American migrants — many of them families with children — crossing the border to seek asylum in the United States has stressed the agencies' ability to process their claims.

DHS is pressing uniformed personnel and civilian employees to join a "volunteer" force to help manage what Trump administration officials have called a "humanitarian and security crisis" along the U.S.-Mexico border, documents leaked to TucsonSentinel.com showed.

For weeks, Trump administration officials have sounded the alarm that an influx of families with children and children traveling without parents or guardians are pushing the immigration system to "a breaking point" by seeking asylum in the U.S. after fleeing violence in three Central American countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, as well as parts of Mexico.

Nielsen was Trump's second DHS secretary. John Kelly left his Cabinet post in December 2017 to become the White House chief of staff.

Trump has frequently blasted Nielsen over the department's inability to completely halt illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Nielsen has also been assailed by critics of the administration's border policies, including those opposed to the family-separation policies that resulted in at least 1,400 children being unable to be located by U.S. immigration authorities last year.

This week, Border Patrol agents in Tucson began releasing some Central Americans families from custody, bypassing ICE because the agency increasingly cannot manage the large numbers arriving families and unaccompanied children. 

From December 21 to April 1, ICE released 125,565 people seeking asylum along the southwestern border, including 22,000 in the Phoenix area of responsibility, which covers Arizona, according to statistics released by the agency this week. 

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ICE's San Antonio office released more than 53,000 people during the same time period, while ICE in the El Paso area released 37,500. 

In November, President Donald Trump attacked the practice of releasing migrants, tweeting that it was over.

"Catch and Release is an obsolete term. It is now Catch and Detain. Illegal Immigrants trying to come into the U.S.A., often proudly flying the flag of their nation as they ask for U.S. Asylum, will be detained or turned away," he wrote.

The shift in the Tucson Sector follows similar moves in the adjacent Yuma Sector and Texas' Rio Grande Valley as Trump administration officials, including Nielsen, have been calling the influx of families and unaccompanied minors from Central America a "humanitarian crisis."

Despite their rocky relationship, Nielsen was publicly a firm supporter of Trump's "zero tolerance" approach — even as that policy was chipped away by the realities of events at the border.

Last Wednesday, officials said that agents in the Yuma area apprehended nearly 1,000 people, most hailing from Central America, is just the last three days. A video released by the agency from a pole camera shows a line of people walking across a canal bridge toward Border Patrol vehicles.

CBP's McAleenan has used the same language. "CBP is facing an unprecedented humanitarian and border security crisis all along our douthwest border," he said. "And nowhere has that crisis manifested more acutely than here in El Paso." 

"We are now on pace for over 100,000 apprehensions and encounters with migrants in March," he said. "March will be the highest month since 2008. The arriving flows are made up primarily of Central American families and unaccompanied children."

"These groups cannot be repatriated expeditiously, and instead, are almost guaranteed to be released to remain in the US indefinitely, regardless of the merits of their immigration or asylum claim. The last time we had crossings near this level, they were almost all single adults from Mexico who can be swiftly repatriated. It's a big difference," McAleenan said.

Through December, the White House spent major political capital trying to get billions for border barriers, and after that effort was largely stymied by Congressional Democrats, Trump declared an emergency, and began stripping money from the Defense Department, including funds for military construction projects.

Families from Central America drive increase

Overall, the number of people detained along the southwest border has increased nearly 39 percent, rising from around 48,000 people apprehended by Border Patrol agents in January to more than 66,000 in February, a shift largely driven by the increase in the number of families largely from Central America, and children traveling without parents or guardians, arriving at the border and immediately turning themselves over to agents. Many of those detained are making claims of asylum.

From January to February, the number of vulnerable people increased by 47 percent. In Yuma Sector, nine out 10 people picked up by Border Patrol agents were either members of a family, or a child traveling "unaccompanied." In the Tucson Sector, around 30 percent of the 4,915 people were part of a family, or an unaccompanied child. 

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March numbers are still being compiled, but an agency spokesman said he expects that trend to continue. 

"I want to be clear with the American people: there is an unprecedented emergency at the southern border, and DHS is leading a true government-wide emergency response," said Nielsen. "We are using every tool at our disposal, redeploying personnel and resources, and calling on all federal agencies to assist, where possible," she said. 

For this end, Nielsen tapped Manuel Padilla Jr., a former chief of the Tucson Sector before he was transferred to the Rio Grande Valley, to lead an "Interagency Border Emergency Cell." 

Padilla will lead the cell, which will include CBP and ICE, as well as officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and DHS's National Response Coordination Center. 

At the same time, Nielsen has ordered DHS agencies to "surge" personnel "toward border security and migration management," a move that includes shifting up to 750 employees of CBP from the U.S. ports.

A spokeswoman for the Nogales border crossings, Teresa Small, would not confirm how many officers were being drawn from the area, only that "just we are sending some as requested." However, the agency has announced that it will stop Sunday inspections, potentially holding up millions of dollars in produce and other goods that travel into Arizona through Nogales. 

"While only legislation can fix this crisis in the long term, we cannot wait for Congress to act. It is our duty to secure the homeland, enforce our immigration laws, and uphold our humanitarian obligations. So we are devoting everything we can to that end," Nielsen said. 

The administration has largely refused to outline what those fixes would be. 

Instead, administration officials have moved to overturn the Flores Settlement, an agreement as part of a 90's-era class-action lawsuit, in U.S. courts, and there was the controversial move to separate children from their parents, a plan that began late 2017 and was terminated after a large-scale public outcry over the summer. 

Similarly, a plan to send people back to Mexico while their case is adjudicated has run into snags. The program, known as "Remain in Mexico," or the Migrant Protection Protocol, has dealt with a few dozen cases at the San Ysidro port. The administration has expanded the program to three sectors, including California's San Diego and El Centro Sectors, but the program has not come to Arizona and a DHS spokeswoman would only say that DHS was working to "implement" MPP across the southern border.

Both policies have been challenged in federal court. "We believe the administration’s chaotic policies are actually encouraging illegal immigration,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute. “We can see that the start and stop of harsh policies is followed by an increasing number of arrivals.”

Nielsen also said she would tour the border, visiting Yuma on Thursday and Calexico on Friday along with the president.

Tucson Sector's move comes just days after Yuma Sector Border Patrol officials announced that they were also releasing migrants directly to the city's streets, while community groups in the area scrambled to set up temporary facilities to house families before they left the border city.

Last week, the Pentagon told Congress that it was going to transfer $1 billion to begin construction along the U.S.-Mexico border, which will include 57 miles of fencing near Yuma and El Paso, along with road improvements and other border security measures.

Pierce agreed that McAleenan and other officials were right that the U.S. immigration system are “super outdated,” but the administration’s focus on “implementing extremely harsh policies, creates a huge incentive for people to arrive here as quick as possible.”

Pierce said that the administration should focus on the asylum system and the nation’s immigration courts, which have become historically backlogged—an issue exacerbated by the partial shutdown of the federal government through January when more than 43,000 court hearings were cancelled, including more than 1,000 in Arizona.

This backlog leaves open questions about the due process of immigration cases, and it can “incentivize” those who have less than a legitimate claim to try anyway.

"They’ve identified a legitimate problem, but rather than deal with the source of the problem, they keep trying to deter people,” Pierce said.

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Ellen O’Brien/Cronkite News

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen holds a news conference with U.S. Rep. Martha McSally near Nogales, Ariz., in June 2018.

Nielsen's resignation letter

Mr. President,

I hereby resign from the position of Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), effective April 7th 2019. It has been my great honor to lead the men and women of the Department as its sixth Secretary. I could not be prouder of and more humbled by their service, dedication, and commitment to keep our country safe from all threats and hazards. I join all Americans in thanking them for their sacrifices and those of their families.

For more than two years of service beginning during the Presidential Transition, I have worked tirelessly to advance the goals and missions of the Department. I am immensely proud of our successes in transforming DHS to keep pace with our enemies and adversaries — whether it is in cyberspace or against emerging threats from new technologies.

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. I hope that the next Secretary will have the support of Congress and the courts in fixing the laws which have impeded our ability to fully secure America's borders and which have contributed to discord in our nation's discourse. Our country - and the men and women of DHS - deserve to have all the tools and resources they need to execute the mission entrusted to them.

I can say with confidence our homeland is safer today than when I joined the Administration. We have taken unprecedented action to protect Americans. We have implemented historic efforts to defend our borders, combat illegal immigration, obstruct the inflow of drugs, and uphold our laws and values. We have responded decisively to record-breaking natural disasters and helped Americans rebuild. We have prevented the disruption of U.S. elections and guarded against foreign interference in our democracy. We have replaced complacency with consequences in cyberspace, we are holding digital intruders accountable, and we are stepping up our protection of American networks. We have thwarted terrorist plotting against our homeland and launched new efforts to block terrorists and criminals from reaching our shores. And we have ramped up security measures to make it harder for our enemies and adversaries to attack us, whether it is with drones, chemical and biological weapons, or through other means.

Thank you again for the privilege to serve the American people and to lead the outstanding men and women of the Department of Homeland Security. Supporting these patriots has been the honor of a lifetime.

Sincerely

Kirstjen M. Nielsen

Secretary of Homeland Security

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