By Yeganeh Torbati, WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The temporary replacement for Kirstjen Nielsen, who quit on Sunday as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), faces the difficult reality of a boss who is demanding legally dubious solutions to an influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Kevin McAleenan, presently commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, will be the fourth person to helm the agency under Trump. McAleenan takes over as U.S. border officials estimated that 100,000 migrants were apprehended at the southern border in March, the highest level in a decade.
As acting secretary, McAleenan follows Nielsen and Elaine Duke, who led the department on an acting basis after John Kelly, Trump’s first DHS secretary, became White House chief of staff in 2017. Trump took office in January of that year.
The president, who made immigration a key campaign theme, has grown increasingly frustrated with his officials, even as they have implemented aggressive policies to limit immigration.
Nielsen oversaw a “zero tolerance” prosecution policy that led to the separation of thousands of parents and children, and launched a policy to return asylum seekers to Mexico until their claims are heard. Both policies garnered legal challenges.
Memorable images of women and children fleeing tear gas on the Mexican border happened on Nielsen’s watch, and McAleenan, whose officers made the decision to use tear gas canisters, defended its use.
“Kirstjen Nielsen’s resignation was long overdue,” California Senator Kamala Harris, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said on Twitter on Monday.
“I will under no circumstances support a nominee who does not forcefully denounce this administration’s policy of separating families at the border,” Harris said.
Trump increasingly has demanded policies that would violate U.S. laws, international agreements and court settlements or require Congress to pass dramatic legislative changes.
A congressional official familiar with the matter said some in Congress believe Trump forced out Nielsen in part because she was trying to obey laws on treatment of refugees, granting of amnesty and separation of families.
It was unclear early on Monday what legally sound strategies McAleenan could implement to achieve Trump’s objective of limiting migrant crossings at the southern border, especially as crossings are expected to reach their yearly peak in the coming months, immigration experts said.
On Friday, Trump called for Congress to “get rid of the whole asylum system” and get rid of immigration judges, and criticized a long-standing federal court decree mandating certain standards of care for migrant children.
“So much of what the president put out there isn’t really legally feasible,” said Sarah Pierce, an immigration policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C. “I, like many, and maybe Nielsen herself are kind of puzzled as to what could happen.”
Stephen Legomsky, a former chief counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under Democratic President Barack Obama, said McAleenan likely will not have much freedom to pursue policies opposed by Trump or his powerful senior aide, Stephen Miller.
“It just seems to me that whoever is put in that position in this administration is going to have a very hard time resisting the philosophy of the White House,” Legomsky said.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Susan Thomas)
(FILE PHOTO: U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan speaks about the impact of the dramatic increase in illegal crossings that continue to occur along the Southwest during a news conference, in El Paso. Photo: Reuters)