Kirstjen Nielsen’s surprise Sunday night resignation as homeland security secretary is part of an ongoing purge of President Donald Trump’s immigration apparatus. It suggests Trump is determined to get tougher on immigration but lacks any concrete plans to do so — his administration was already being about as tough as possible within the confines of the law — beyond saying he wants to get tougher policy agenda on immigration.
The shake-up started with the surprise announcement Thursday night that Trump had withdrawn the nomination for acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief Ron Vitiello to run the agency on a permanent basis. White House policy adviser Stephen Miller is rumored to be advocating for the ouster of Lee Francis Cissna, the current director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services. The New York Times has added more names to the list of potential targets.
Meanwhile, Trump is attempting to name US Customs and Border Protection Chief Kevin McAleenan as acting DHS secretary, even though the statute requires the job to go to Undersecretary for Management Claire Grady. And for the past week there’s been talk of creating a new “immigration czar” post to ride herd officials from across the departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and State, aiming to better coordinate the Trump administration’s efforts to curb Central American asylum seekers.
All of this adds up, in theory, to an even harder line from the White House on immigration. But what it amounts to in practice is not clear.
Trump is upset that his administration is not halting the flow of asylum seekers. But his only alternative to his own failed tough policies is to say that we need tough policies. So officials are being fired for no clear reason. (Trump’s only idea for negotiating with either congressional Democrats or other regional governments is more bluster.)
The president is frustrated about how little progress he’s making on a signature issue, but also apparently unwilling to try to resolve that frustration by actually doing anything different.
Asylum claims have risen sharply
Unauthorized immigration from Mexico, which had been high throughout most of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations despite steady ongoing efforts to harden and militarize the border, fell sharply during the Great Recession years. This coincided with a step-up in deportations that spanned the last couple years of Bush’s term in office and Obama’s first term. Consequently, through the Obama years it was the case that net unauthorized migration from Mexico was less than zero — more people were leaving than coming — which became an important talking point in the immigration debate.
Then in 2014, the United States began to experience a surge in families and unaccompanied minors coming from Central America.
This was different from the classic illegal immigration debate in three significant ways. First, the migration primarily involved people from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, rather than Mexico. Second, it primarily involved children and families rather than single men looking for work. Third, and most important, many migrants were seeking asylum without visas, but it is not illegal to arrive at the border without a visa and make an asylum claim. In these situations, the claims need to be adjudicated and something needs to be done with the people making the claims while their cases await adjudication.
When Trump first took office in early 2017, apprehensions of asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border plummeted. Fear of Trump’s new tough on immigration posture was plausibly the reason, and Trump did not hesitate to claim credit. But the underlying situation in Central America did not really change, and even though Trump has been able to change many aspects of American immigration policy, there’s nothing he can really do about the fact that people are legally entitled to make asylum claims. Consequently, the number of asylum seekers began to rise again. Trump tried the family separation policy, thinking that cruel treatment of children might deter families from making claims.
But the backlash was too severe, the policy was unwound, and administration officials believe they’ve apprehended about 100,000 asylum seekers in March alone. The failure of Trump’s tough crackdown is now prompting a series of flailing moves aimed at halting it.
Trump’s been in tantrum mode for weeks
One continuity in American policy across the Obama and Trump years has been that it makes sense for the United States to try to invest money in aid to Central American countries to try to improve living conditions in the region. The idea is that if life were better in the Northern Triangle, fewer people would leave, and that spending money on aid is more workable and sustainable than apprehending and monitoring huge numbers of asylum seekers.
But on March 28, the news leaked that the State Department was paralyzed in actually releasing aid money because officials feared running afoul of Trump’s more punitive instincts. Then on April 1, Trump abruptly announced an aid cutoff.
Around this same time, Trump started talking frequently about the possibility that he would “close” the border with Mexico. Trump’s rhetoric about this has often seemed to imply that he believes asylum seekers are coming through someplace that’s “open” and that he has the power to “close.” The reality, however, is that what would be closed if you closed the border is legitimate cross-border commerce (of which there’s a lot) while having little direct impact on asylum claims.
More recently, however, Trump has reframed this more clearly as a threat to wage economic war on Mexico unless Mexico agrees to serve as a kind of proxy jailer that prevents anyone from making their way north to the border.
The problem with this idea, obviously, is that while shutting down cross-border trade would hurt the Mexican economy it would hurt the American economy too. It’s true that it would hurt the Mexican economy more (the US is bigger than Mexico, so the US-Mexico trade relationship is a bigger deal for Mexico than it is for the United States) so in theory this could work as a threat even if it’s a bad idea.
But, again, the fact that a border shutdown would hurt the American economy makes it in many ways an inherently noncredible threat. Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric won him votes in America’s industrial towns, but it’s unlikely to be popular if the North American auto industry shuts down because car parts from Mexico can’t make their way north while imported vehicles from Europe and Asia keep arriving at our seaports.
So Trump appears, to an extent, to be spinning his wheels. Demanding new personnel as a substitute for actual new ideas.
Stephen Miller is plotting a DHS purge
A key figure in this bout of administration drama is Stephen Miller, a veteran immigration hawk.
Miller became well known to the press as communications director for then-Sen. Jeff Sessions during most of Barack Obama’s presidency. Back in 2013, a bipartisan group of senators crafted a comprehensive immigration bill that ended up passing the Senate with a large bipartisan majority and the backing of the president. With his caucus divided on the bill, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took an uncharacteristically hands-off approach. Sessions emerged as the de facto leader of the opposition, with Miller a very aggressive spokesperson for his boss and frequently in touch with journalists covering the debate.
Sessions famously became an early Trump supporter over their shared interest in immigration, and Miller moved onto the Trump team as a key early staffer in his somewhat threadbare operation. Once ensconced in the White House, Miller deftly switched allegiance from Sessions to Trump himself and has remained in the president’s good graces even as many other senior aides have departed the administration.
Now CNN reports that Miller was not only a major advocate of firing Nielsen but “also wants the President to dismiss the director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, Lee Cissna, and the department’s general counsel, John Mitnick.” What’s more, according to CNN at least some administration officials believe the seemingly illegal decision to elevate McAleenan over Grady as acting secretary at the Department of Homeland Security is part of an effort to force Grady out as well. Under the relevant statute, Trump does not have discretion about who to designate as acting Secretary of DHS as long as the Undersecretary for Management position is filled. But Trump can fire an undersecretary any time he wants to, which would then give him the flexibility to designate McAleenan.
Trump is also in the midst of firing the director of the US Secret Service, which does not deal with immigration but is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
But unlike in some previous Trump era personnel disputes, there’s no particularly obvious policy context to this. There’s no equivalent, in other words, of Trump wanting US troops out of Syria and then-Defense Secretary James Mattis opposing him, or of Trump’s rage that Sessions recused himself as attorney general from the Russia investigation.
The president seems frustrated that people keep telling him he can’t respond to this situation by closing the borders, but the pushback on that is firmest from the economic policy side of his administration, not from the Homeland Security side, so it’s not clear what a DHS purge will accomplish. But Trump seems unwilling to really try new ideas so he’s aiming for new people instead.
Trump is all stick, no carrot
One oddity of Trump’s situation is that he is the one who is saying the large influx of Central American asylum seekers is a huge first-tier problem. Neither most Democrats nor Republican leaders in Congress are particularly fired-up about this subject or demanding that Trump do anything in particular.
Under the circumstances, one normal way for this to play out would be for Trump to come to Democrats with what he wants — legal changes to the asylum process that make it faster and easier to turn people away — in exchange for something they think is important. But in the past, whenever Trump has seemed to be approaching any kind of deal with Democrats on immigration, hard-liners end up scuttling it by insisting that essentially the entire restrictionist agenda needs to be part of the deal.
By the same token, Trump could try to offer Mexico an extremely generous package of trade and aid concessions aimed at convincing the Mexican government to handle the asylum seekers. Mexico’s president has spoken of a “New Marshall Plan” for economic development in Central America and Southern Mexico that indicates his desire for some kind of deal along these lines.
But Trump is an all-stick, no-carrot kind of guy. His idea of doing a deal with Democrats was to cancel DACA protection for young undocumented immigrants and then offer to reinstate it in exchange for sweeping concessions. And he wants to get Mexico to do favors for him by threatening to hurt both countries’ economies unless they do what he wants. This incredibly punitive, wildly ineffective approach to dealmaking has been a hallmark of Trump’s approach to the presidency from Day 1, and it appears to be derived from his success as a business executive at using his greater wealth to stiff contractors and shareholders.
But in the presidency, this kind of bullying doesn’t work at all, as you can see from his lack of success in getting border wall money appropriated. A reasonable response to policy failure would be to try to go in a new direction, but Trump seems entirely uninterested in that. So rather than rethink his approach, he’s now inclined to burn through administration personnel, even though shuffling the names on an org chart around isn’t going to alter any of the fundamentals of the situation.