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Acting director at DHS resigns, paving way for new Trump choice

Ousted Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced that her acting deputy resigned Tuesday, apparently paving the way for current CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan to take over DHS.

Nielsen was abruptly fired as head of Homeland Security during a visit to the White House on Sunday afternoon, just days after a series of high-profile stops in El Paso and Yuma, and an appearance with President Donald Trump at the border on Friday. 

On Sunday, DHS released a statement touting that trip, just before the announcement that Nielsen was leaving her job. 

This ended the sometimes contentious relationship between Nielsen and Trump, with the president often undercutting his own DHS secretary as he continues to ratchet up his language in response to a rising number of asylum seekers crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. In the most recent example, DHS announced that Nielsen signed a "historical regional compact" with the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to stem migration. The following day, Trump announced that the U.S. would cut aid to those Central American nations because "they haven't done a thing for us."

Trump announced Sunday that McAleenan would become the acting DHS secretary pending his confirmation, but Democrats were quick to point out that federal law bars that move. 

"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.

There are four other offices between Grady and McAleenan, including the administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as three undersecretaries, however, only one of those senior positions is filled by someone who was confirmed by the Senate, Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis David Glawe, Lawfare reported. 

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In a widely distributed letter to DHS personnel, Nielsen said that Claire M. Grady had offered the president her resignation effective Wednesday, ending a 28-year career in public service at the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense. 

Grady had served DHS with "excellence and distinction," Nielsen wrote, adding that Grady has been "an invaluable asset to DHS — a steady force and a knowledgeable voice." 

Grady served as the acting deputy for the last year, and previously she was the under secretary for management, "overseeing all aspects of the department’s management programs, including financial, human capital, information technology, procurement, physical security and asset management."

"Her sound leadership and effective oversight have impacted every DHS office and employee and made us stronger as a department," Nielsen said. "I am thankful for Claire’s expertise, dedication and friendship and am filled with gratitude for her exemplary service to DHS and to our country," she said. "I wish her all the best in her future endeavors." 

Grady was one of several DHS officials to find themselves on the outs in recent days. 

On 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 after serving for months as the agency's acting commissioner. Monday, Trump moved to remove Secret Service Director Randolph "Tex" Ailes.

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

The shakeup at DHS comes as CBP faces rising numbers in detentions largely driven by Central American families seeking asylum in the United States. Tuesday, CBP officials announced that in March they took into custody 103,492 people, including families and children traveling without parents, an increase of 35 percent from February. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A CBP officer walks along the loading dock at the Mariposa Port of Entry.