Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, who defended the separation of thousands of migrant children from their families on the southern border, carried out the most sweeping changes to U.S. asylum policy in decades, and saw two Guatemalan children die in her agency’s custody, left her job Sunday.
President Trump announced the departure in a tweet, briefly thanking Nielsen for her service and saying that Kevin McAleenan, the head of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, will become acting secretary.
It was not immediately clear whether Nielsen quit or was fired.
Her departure came just two days after Trump blindsided Homeland Security officials by withdrawing the nomination of a career official, Ronald D. Vitiello, to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Homeland Security agency that arrests and deports people who are in the U.S. illegally.
Trump said at the time that he wanted to go “in a tougher direction.”
Nielsen’s departure will soon leave Trump’s 21-member Cabinet with only three women — Betsy DeVos at the Education Department, Elaine Chao at Transportation and Gina Haspel as head of the CIA. Linda McMahon, the head of the Small Business Administration, announced recently that she will leave this month to take a high-level position with a pro-Trump campaign committee.
Nielsen was responsible for implementing one of Trump’s most controversial initiatives, splitting up thousands of parents and children who crossed the southern border and holding them apart.
She gave a full-throated defense of the “zero tolerance” policy for illegal border crossings in early 2018 that resulted in the family separations, though some affected migrants crossed legally. Yet she has continued to insist there was no official policy for separating families.
“I’m not a liar,” she said in a tense congressional hearing in December. “We’ve never had a policy for family separation.”
Federal courts later blocked the separations, and Trump formally ended the practice with an executive order. Since then, Homeland Security and other U.S. officials have struggled to reunite separated children with their relatives by court-ordered deadlines, while some parents were deported without their children.
In January, inspectors for the agency that oversees the care of children in federal custody reported that the Trump administration probably separated thousands more children than previously thought, starting well before the “zero tolerance” policy was officially announced in spring of 2018.
Nielsen also took heavy criticism after a 7-year-old girl and then an 8-year-old boy, both from Guatemala, died while in Border Patrol custody within three weeks in December.
After the second child died on Christmas Eve, Nielsen decried the tragedy in a lengthy statement, saying that “the death of a child in government custody is deeply concerning and heartbreaking” and announcing efforts to provide better medical care along the border.
But she blamed the children’s parents, Congress, federal judges and others, rather than accept responsibility, though Customs and Border Protection operations and the Border Patrol are under Homeland Security.
Nielsen struggled to balance Trump’s mercurial, sometimes unrealistic demands on immigration and her responsibilities as head of one of the largest departments in the federal government.
She always publicly defended Trump’s immigration crackdown, but the president at times made no secret of his displeasure after she took office in December 2017.
Nielsen, 46, was a close ally of Trump’s first Homeland Security secretary and later chief of staff, John F. Kelly, who also saw his relationship with Trump fray badly. Nielsen joined the Trump administration in early 2017 as chief of staff to Kelly, and when the former Marine general moved to the White House, she followed as his deputy.
A month later, in October 2017, Trump nominated Nielsen to head Homeland Security. The Senate confirmed her by a vote of 62 to 37.
Though Trump chose Nielsen for the job, he reportedly viewed her with suspicion because she had served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush, marking her as a member of the Republican establishment that Trump has criticized and battled.
Still, once in office, she publicly backed Trump’s long-promised border wall even as the administration struggled to secure the necessary funding from Congress, let alone follow through on Trump’s campaign pledge to make Mexico pay for it.
She visited Calexico, Calif., for a ceremony where a plaque commemorating Trump was welded to a newly erected barrier that was originally planned in 2009.
Under Nielsen, Homeland Security also coordinated with the Pentagon after Trump ordered nearly 6,000 U.S. troops to the border just before the Nov. 6 midterm election to help block what the president termed an “invasion” by several thousand Central American migrants moving north in so-called caravans. The president has extended the deployment through September.
The dispute between the White House and Congress over funding for the wall led to the longest partial shutdown in U.S. history for 35 days between December and January, affecting about one-fourth of the government and roughly 800,000 federal workers.
On Feb. 15, Trump declared a national emergency at the border from the Rose Garden, at one point gesturing to Nielsen, one of the most vocal supporters of the move to bypass lawmakers and tap into $6.6 billion in military construction money and other federal funding to build hundreds of miles of border barrier.
At least 16 states have sued the Trump administration for using emergency powers to build his oft-touted but so far thwarted border wall.
As head of Homeland Security, Nielsen has been adamant that there is a “humanitarian and security crisis” at the border, though illegal immigration is at historical lows. Apprehensions, the most common measure of illegal immigration, fell dramatically in Trump’s first year in office, but he has been frustrated by an increase since then in minors and families from Central America seeking asylum in the United States.
Although a number of Trump’s immigration policies have been blocked by the courts, the most sweeping change, implemented under Nielsen, remains in effect: forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated in the United States.
Kelly, one of Nielsen’s closest allies in the White House, left in January, telling the Times he disagreed with Trump’s decision in December to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan. He defended Nielsen’s actions amid the outcry over family separations, saying she and the White House were caught by surprise when Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions announced the zero tolerance policy.
But officials had already begun to implement the policy and separate migrant children from their parents months beforehand, which Nielsen said was simply enforcing existing law. She blamed migrants for using children as a “get out of jail free card” because of legal limits on how long families could be detained.
Trump signed an executive order ending the practice on June 25, 2018, though Nielsen had argued the president could not stop it with an executive order, because no formal policy existed. Trump directed officials to keep families together when they were detained, but there’s evidence that separations are continuing.
Beyond immigration and border security, Nielsen, like her mentor Kelly, publicly backed a number of Trump’s more controversial pronouncements, such as his claim that “both sides were to blame” after deadly violence broke out between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va.
“It’s not that one side is right, one side is wrong. Anybody that is advocating violence, we need to work to mitigate,” she said at the Aspen Security Forum in July 2018.
Nielsen was widely mocked for her testimony to a Senate committee on Jan. 16, 2018, that focused, in part, on whether Trump had described Africa and Haiti in crude, disparaging terms.
After Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asked her if Norway was a predominantly white country. Nielsen responded, “I actually do not know that, sir.”
“But I imagine that is the case,” she added.
During a congressional hearing in May, Nielsen also said she was unaware of the intelligence community’s conclusion — endorsed by a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report — that Russia deliberately sought to help Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Nielsen later backtracked and she agreed with the intelligence assessments, and the Homeland Security department later helped safeguard the integrity of the 2018 midterm election.
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said on Dec. 21 that Russia, Iran and China had “conducted influence activities and messaging campaigns targeted at the United States to promote their strategic interests,” but no evidence suggested ballots or vote counts were affected.