BY ARNIE SEIPEL, LAURA SMITHERMAN AND BRIAN NAYLOR, NPR
Updated at 11:17 p.m. ET April 7, 2019
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen is leaving her post, President Trump announced Sunday as he continues to focus on restricting border crossings amid a recent surge. Nielsen had recently warned a congressional panel of a “catastrophe” on the southern border after the number of crossings hit a 10-year high.
In a tweet, President Trump said, “Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen will be leaving her position, and I would like to thank her for her service….”
Trump said Kevin McAleenan, the current commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, would serve as acting secretary. Nielsen said Sunday night that she will stay on through Wednesday.
The change at the top comes with other uncertainty over management at the Department of Homeland Security. The president on Friday dropped his nominee to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Ronald Vitiello, telling reporters, “We want to go in a tougher direction.”
Trump’s own response to the situation at the border in recent days has been frenetic. First, he threatened to close the southern border as soon as last week. Then, he backed off that threat and issued a new one, saying he would put hefty tariffs on cars made in Mexico if the country did not do more to stop the flow of migrants as well as drugs coming north. He gave Mexico a “one-year warning.”
Often the primary person working to turn Trump’s harsh immigration rhetoric into policy, Nielsen was under intense scrutiny. As recently as March, she faced tough questioning from House Democrats over the treatment of migrants, especially children, at the southern border.
Nielsen is Trump’s second secretary of homeland security, taking over the cabinet post in December 2017 after John Kelly became White House chief of staff. Nielsen had worked as a top aide to Kelly at both DHS and the White House.
Her tenure was marked throughout by tensions with Trump, who reportedly lashed out at her several times because illegal border crossings have not been stopped. Nielsen faced more public pressure after the Trump administration enacted a policy of family separation that resulted in thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents, which the president ultimately reversed.
In her resignation letter posted on Twitter, Nielsen alluded to her rocky tenure.
“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,” wrote Nielsen. “I hope that the next Secretary will have the support of Congress and the courts in fixing the laws that have impeded our ability to fully secure America’s borders and have contributed to discord in our nation’s discourse.”
“Through lies, misdirection and rationalizations, Nielsen defended the indefensible and presided over policies, including family separation, that will live in infamy,” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group, said in a statement. Sharry added that he does not expect the administration to back off its hardline approach to immigration policy. “While she will not be missed, we have no illusions that her replacement will usher in a brighter day at DHS.”