FederalImmigration & BorderIssuesPresident Trump’s Unprecedented Turnover Rate at Homeland Security Highlights Importance, Complications of Securing Border

With five Homeland Security secretaries in less than three years, border security and immigration remain a complicated policy initiative for the Trump administration.
November 8, 2019
Last week, President Trump announced Chad Wolf as the next acting secretary for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), making him the fifth person to head the sprawling 22 agency, 240,000 plus employee department in less than three years. 

With two Senate-confirmed secretaries and three acting secretaries in such a short timeframe, the turnover rate illustrates administrative turbulence rooted in President Trump’s desire for a DHS leader willing and able to implement the hawkish immigration policies that the president wants. 

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During his brief time in the position, retired four-star General John Kelly was not afraid to voice concerns over some of the president’s homeland security measures, including disagreements over the need for a physical border wall along the southern border.

However, Kelly garnered favor from the president for his hardline stance on illegal immigration through his implementation of enhanced deportation initiatives and his willingness to enforce Trump’s immigration policies. Specifically, the so-called “travel ban” on individuals attempting to enter the United States from specified, predominantly Muslim countries with ongoing security and terrorism problems.

The favor Kelly gained while serving as secretary ultimately led to his appointment as White House chief of staff with the hopes of bringing structure and discipline to the president’s new and often chaotic administration.

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Kelly ultimately left his position because of strained relationships with both the president and other members of the administration.

Following Kelly’s move to the White House, Deputy Secretary of DHS Elaine Duke took over for Kelly as acting Homeland Security Secretary.

In her previous tenure at the department, Duke worked in a number of different capacities, including serving as undersecretary and as chief procurement officer, while also serving as deputy assistant administrator for acquisition at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) less than a year after the September 11 terrorist attacks. 

During her time as acting secretary, however, she reportedly faced pressure from Kelly, among other administration officials, regarding whether or not to end the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program for Honduran immigrants in the United States. 

In accordance with federal law, the designation allows eligible individuals facing threatening or dangerous conditions, such as war, disease, or natural disaster, to temporarily live and work in the U.S. 

After saying she did not have enough information to make a decision regarding the matter, a six-month extension of protected status automatically went into effect for Honduran immigrants living in the United States. 

The move allegedly displeased officials within the administration, who feared it would bring complications to Kirstjen Nielsen, as she underwent the confirmation process to become the next leader at DHS. 

Following the debacle, sources say Duke expressed a desire to resign from her acting position. Kirstjen Nielsen was eventually Senate-confirmed as the next Secretary of Homeland Security.

As the only Senate-confirmed secretary in addition to John Kelly, Nielsen’s tenure in office was also rocky and plagued by frequent criticism from both those inside and outside the administration. 

Secretary Nielsen oversaw the implementation of President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in an increase in the separation of immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border in addition to overseeing a number of President Trump’s other initiatives. 

Despite her efforts, however, President Trump was reportedly unhappy with what he perceived as her inability to secure the southern border. 

The relationship between the two became increasingly strained and Nielsen allegedly perceived many of his requests to be extreme and unrealistic. 

Despite working hard to garner favor from the president by frequently appearing on TV shows and speaking publicly in support of his policies, she was reportedly pressured into resigning by White House officials who saw her as being too weak on the president’s signature policy issue.

Following Secretary Nielsen’s resignation, Kevin McAleenan, a holdover from the Obama administration and former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), was appointed to be the next acting secretary, making him the fourth leader of DHS to serve in less than three years.

In contrast to Secretary Nielsen, whom the president saw as unable to adequately implement his vision, McAleenan served in “acting” capacity during the four months this summer that total border apprehensions consecutively declined despite Fiscal Year 2019 ending with a 12-year high for overall illegal immigrant apprehensions. 

Additionally, McAleenan oversaw the implementation and enforcement of a number of President Trump’s immigration initiatives, including a third-country asylum rule requiring migrants to initially apply for asylum in a country through which they first pass when traveling to the U.S. and the signing of an asylum cooperation agreement with Guatemala.

He also worked to expand the Migration Protection Protocols that authorize individuals undergoing immigration proceedings to wait in Mexico while their cases are decided in addition to overseeing the replacement of the Flores Settlement Agreement

Despite enforcing and implementing many of President Trump’s immigration initiatives, however, administration officials expressed concerns about McAleenan’s more moderate views on border security, as he was often outspoken in expressing his frustrations with the administration for the president’s tone and hawkish positions. 

McAleenan also reportedly believed he had done all he could do within DHS, as he perceived border security to have become an increasingly deadlocked issue in Congress with Democrats in control of the House and Republicans in control of the Senate.

With the recent announcement of McAleenan’s resignation, Chad Wolf has been tapped as the next acting head to the turbulent administration position.

Though it was rumored that acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Director Ken Cuccinelli, an ardent supporter of the president known for his hardline stance on immigration, could be tapped as the next secretary, there were concerns as to his eligibility as well as his ability to be confirmed by the Senate.

Wolf is currently serving as undersecretary for the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans. He previously served as chief of staff to former Secretary Nielsen. 

Though he has not been as outspoken as other immigration hardliners, like Cuccinelli, he reportedly earned support from White House advisors, including Stephen Miller, who believe him to be a good interim fit for the position based on his previous work at DHS.

Some within the administration have reportedly expressed concerns that Wolf will be softer on immigration issues when compared to the President, but only time will tell.

If indeed he does fail to live up to the president’s standards, Wolf will simply follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. 

However, the staggering turnover rate reveals a pattern of instability rooted in both turbulent personal relationships and the president’s desire for a DHS secretary who possesses the same hardline stance on immigration and border security that he does.

With the border crisis being an ongoing concern for Texans and Mexican drug cartels growing more dangerous by the day, the volatility at the department is unlikely to alleviate the problem.


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Sarah McConnell, Reporter for The Texan

Sarah McConnell

Sarah McConnell is a reporter for The Texan. Previously, she worked as a Cyber Security Consultant after serving as a Pathways Intern at the Department of Homeland Security – Citizenship and Immigration Services. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Texas A&M as well as her Master of Public Service and Administration degree from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M. In her free time, Sarah is an avid runner, jazz enthusiast, and lover of all things culinary.