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White House again reshuffles leadership at border agencies as CBP head resigns

Who's in charge? 'Hell if I know'

While Border Patrol agents deal with an influx of asylum seekers, mostly families from Central America and Mexico, the White House is again rearranging the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security.

On Tuesday, the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, John P. Sanders, told agency employees that he was leaving effective Friday, July 5. Department of Homeland Security officials confirmed the announcement.

President Donald Trump is preparing to replace Sanders with Mark Morgan, the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Washington Post reported

"Although I will leave it to you to determine whether I was successful, I can unequivocally say that helping support the amazing men and women of CBP has been the most fulfilling and satisfying opportunity of my career," Sanders wrote in a message to agency employees.

In April, the White House engaged in what one DHS official called a "near-systematic purge" at DHS, beginning with the ousting of DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in early-April. 

With Sanders' resignation and Morgan's shift, all of the border security and immigration positions that require a Senate confirmation have been left with an acting leader. And, all told, a dozen leadership positions at DHS are either vacant or have an acting head.

That includes: 

  • Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of DHS since April 11, 2019. McAleenan is the third person to hold the position, after John F. Kelly resigned in 2017 to serve as the White House chief of staff, and was replaced by Nielsen
  • Morgan, acting director of ICE since May 28, 2019. Morgan is the fifth director for ICE under the Trump administration, having replaced Matthew Albence, who also served as acting director. They were preceded by Ronald Vitiello and Thomas Homan. At the beginning of Trump's term, Daniel H. Ragsdale was acting director for 10 days, from Jan. 20 to Jan. 30, 2017.
  • Sanders, former acting commissioner of CBP since April 15, 2019, was the third head of the agency under Trump. He was preceding by McAleenan, and Obama holdover R. Gil Kerlikowske.
  • Ken Cuccinelli, deputy director and current head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services since June 10, 2019. Cuccinelli replaced Lee Cissna, who served as the director for the agency during the Obama administration. 
  • Carla Provost, the current chief of the Border Patrol, did not need Senate confirmation, and has remained in her position since August 2018. Holding the post prior to her were Vitiello and Morgan.

Asked who was in charge now, one staffer for a DHS agency said Tuesday, "Hell if I know."

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Meanwhile CBP struggles to manage the continued influx of asylum seekers from Central America and Mexico, mostly families traveling with children, or children traveling with guardians or siblings.

In May, Border Patrol agents took into custody nearly 133,000 people, including more than 84,000 people traveling either as families or unaccompanied children. This was the largest number of monthly detentions in more than a decade, and comes after more than a decade of declining number of people detained along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Last week, a group of lawyers inspected a Border Patrol facility near McAllen, Texas, as part of the Flores Settlement, a lawsuit that began in 1997 over the treatment of children in immigration custody, and found that migrants, including young children, were living in squalid conditions. 

"Basic hygiene just doesn't exist there," said Toby Gialluca, one of the lawyers who interviewed children at the detention center. "It’s a health crisis ... a manufactured health crisis," she said.

On Monday, officials announced suddenly moved hundreds of children from the facility in Clint, Texas, to a Border Patrol station near El Paso, following reports that the children had spent nearly a month living with substandard food, water and sanitation. 

Sanders' resignation comes just 71 days after he was tapped for the position by former commissioner Kevin McAleenan, who left CBP to become the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to replace Nielsen. 

Along with Nielsen, the White House also forced out Ronald Vitiello, the acting head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Nielsen's deputy director Claire Grady, and Secret Service Director Randolph "Tex" Ailes. Vitiello also served as the deputy commissioner for CBP from April 2017 to July 2018 before he was shifted to ICE to replace Thomas Homan, who served as acting head of the agency throughout 2017 until he decided to retire. 

Homan may return to immigration enforcement as a border "czar." 

"The failed leadership by this administration, the instability of DHS senior personnel, the constant shake-ups to border strategy and inhumane polices have all contributed to the crisis and mismanagement at our southern border," said U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. "We need real leadership at the border not acting political directors," she said. 

Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, which is currently engaged in lawsuit over the use of Defense Department funding to build border barriers along the border, including three wildlife refugees in Arizona, said in a statement that the commissioner's resignation is a "critical moment" that "stresses the need for continued public pressure in calling on the Trump administration to reverse its course on this anti-immigrant agenda, stop its inhumane treatment of migrant families, and abandon its dangerous push for a border wall." 

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Brune called CBP "out-of-control and problematic," and that Sierra Club members and volunteers working and living along the border have seen "first-hand the growing and unchecked cruelty," of CBP officials. "Border communities have experienced racist targeting by agents, damage from border wall construction and unjustified militarization in the places they call home," he said.

Sanders was the third CBP commissioner under the Trump administration after R. Gil Kerlikowske, an Obama-era appointee, resigned in Jan. 2017, and was followed by McAleenan. 

Morgan was also an Obama-era official, but was ousted from his position as chief of the Border Patrol in 2017 by the Trump administration, through Morgan used a series of cable news appearances to catapult himself back into DHS to become the acting head of ICE. 

Correction: This story was updated to better describe Cuccinelli’s status at USCIS.


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Click image to enlarge

Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales, Arizona in January, 2019.

Sanders' resignation notice

From: ACTING COMMISSIONER SANDERS

Sent: Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Subject: Message to Employees

As some of you are aware, yesterday I offered my resignation to Secretary McAleenan, effective Friday, July 5. In that letter, I quoted a wise man who said to me, "each man will judge their success by their own metrics." Although I will leave it to you to determine whether I was successful, I can unequivocally say that helping support the amazing men and women of CBP has been the most fulfilling and satisfying opportunity of my career.

I've spent a significant amount of time over the last several days reflecting on my time at CBP. When I began this journey, Commissioner McAleenan charged me with aligning the mission support organizations and accelerating his priorities. Easy enough, I thought. What I didn't appreciate at the time was how the journey would transform me professionally and personally. This transformation was due in large part to the fact that people embraced and welcomed me in a way that was new to me – in a way that was truly special. To this day, I get choked up when speaking about it and I can't adequately express my thanks. As a result, let me simply say I will never stop defending the people and the mission for which 427 people gave their lives in the line of duty in defending. Hold your heads high with the honor and distinction that you so richly deserve.

Throughout our journey together, your determination and can-do attitude made the real difference. It allowed CBP to accomplish what others thought wasn't possible…what others weren't able to do. And even though there is uncertainty during change, there is also opportunity. I therefore encourage everyone to reflect on all that you have accomplished as a team. My hope is you build upon your accomplishments and embrace new opportunities, remain flexible, and continue to make CBP extraordinary. This is your organization…own it! Don't underestimate the power of momentum as you continue to tackle some of this country's most difficult challenges.

I will forever be honored to have served beside you. As a citizen of this great country, I thank you for your public service.

Take care of each other,

John

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