Kirstjen Nielsen, the head of the US Homeland Security has quit President Donald Trump’s cabinet amid an unprecedented upheaval at the highest echelons of the government and an immigration crisis at the country’s southern border.
Trump announced the resignation of Nielsen as the Secretary of Homeland Security on Sunday on Twitter after several months of tense relations over her handling of immigration, a central issue for the President.
Nielsen’s departure was not formally a firing, but had the hallmarks of a forced resignation given its suddenness and the simmering differences between the the two.
Last year, media reports said that Trump had yelled at her for about half-an-hour at a cabinet meeting accusing her of failing to stop the tide of illegal immigration.
Illegal immigration has risen to crisis levels with more than 100,000 people apprehended while crossing the border illegally in March – five times the number stopped in March 2017 – after 75,000 were stopped in February, according to the US government.
Some estimates say that if that rate of illegal immigration continued it would reach 1 million this year.
“We want to go in a tougher direction”, Trump said on Friday indicating he wants a new level of enforcement.
That signal reinforced by Nielsen’s departure raised apprehensions about what Trump may do.
Democratic Party’s Senate leader Chuck Schumer said: “When even the most radical voices in the administration aren’t radical enough for President Trump, you know he’s completely lost touch with the American people.”
With Nielsen’s departure, there are five vacancies at the cabinet level, including the crucial positions of defence secretary and the president’s chief of staff. The Homeland Security deputy secretary’s job is also vacant and Trump had to appoint Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan to be the acting secretary.
In under 10 months of Trump’s presidency, there have been resignations or firings at nine cabinet-level positions involving at least 11 people.
Despite criticism of Trump of being anti-immigrant and the US turning hostile to immigrants, thousands of people from Central America continue to come in ever larger numbers in caravans and in smaller groups to demand asylum or the right immigrate. Many of them are camped at the border, while others have crossed the border illegally. A significant number of them are families with children.
Trump has not been able to come up with a solution for the crisis. In the latest attempt, he threatened to shut down the southern border completely if Mexico did not stop the flow of potential illegal immigrants coming through. But he backed down because of the economic impact on the US if the $616 billion annual trade with Mexico were stopped. He instead gave Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador a year’s deadline to deal with it threatened high tariffs on automobile and certain other imports if he failed.
Another strategy he has adopted is to build a border barrier across the Mexican border. Failing to get funding for it from Congress even after a 35-day government shutdown he forced by refusing to sign the budget legislation, Trump has declared a state of emergency to enable him to divert as much as $6 billion for the border wall.
Nielsen was caught between Trump’s demand for stronger enforcement and Democrats’ harsh criticism of her efforts.
Following Nielson’s resignation, chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, Bennie Thompson, said: “Hampered by misstep after misstep, Kirstjen Nielsen’s tenure at the Department of Homeland Security was a disaster from the start.
“I can say with confidence our homeland is safer today than when I joined the administration,” Nielsen said in her resignation letter. “We have implemented historic efforts to defend our borders, combat illegal immigration, obstruct the inflow of drugs, and uphold our laws and values.”
Nielson’s policy last year to separate children from their families to work around a court order against detaining children for more than 20 days, backfired as pictures of them taken from parents or guardians still in detentions flooded the media.
She ended the policy, virtually guaranteeing that anyone bringing children with them would be allowed to go free after an initial detention while they await political asylum hearings.
While other crucial immigration issues like the wait of more than years that most applicants for legal immigration from India face, or the legalisation of those who were brought into the US as children await, the border crisis has consumed all attention.
Democrats, who oppose Trump’s hardline policy on illegal immigration, have not offered an alternative and appear to be drifting towards what amounts to a policy of open borders. Some Democrats like Indian-origin Representative Premila Jayapal have gone to the extent of calling for legislation to abolish the agency that enforces immigration laws.