Kevin McAleenan, acting US Homeland Security secretary, stepping down

Latest departure from Trump White House leaves top-level vacancy at department responsible for immigration enforcement and helping states secure elections

Then-acting US Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations, September 23, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Then-acting US Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations, September 23, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

AP — Kevin McAleenan is stepping down from his post as acting Homeland Security secretary after six months on the job, US President Donald Trump announced Friday. McAleenan told The Associated Press that he was leaving on his own terms, which would be unlike other top administration figures pushed out during Trump’s tenure.

McAleenan had managed a massive border crisis that quieted down recently following crackdowns and policies restricting asylum that he helped enact.

Trump said McAleenan was leaving to spend more time with his family and go to the private sector. No replacement was yet named in the department, which has seen its ranks decimated through firings and resignations. The acting DHS deputy is the head of the Transportation Security Administration.

Although McAleenan was not a member of Trump’s inner circle — he is a career civil servant and Democrat — or a frequent presence on television like others in the department, he was respected by the White House for his efforts, and his departure came as something of a surprise.

It creates yet another top-level vacancy in Trump’s Cabinet — at the department responsible not only for immigration enforcement but also for helping states secure elections.

“We have worked well together with Border Crossings being Way down,” Trump tweeted.

US President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally at the Lake Charles Civic Center, October 11, 2019, in Lake Charles, La. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

McAleenan tweeted that he had worked — with the president’s support — to stem the crisis and that he would help ensure a smooth transition.

“I want to thank the President for the opportunity to serve the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security,” McAleenan wrote.

He took over in April after Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen quit; he was the fourth person to lead the department in two years.

The longtime US Customs and Border Protection official was seen as a level head who could effectively manage the border crisis, but like many other former administration officials who came before, Trump eventually soured on him.

His tenure was marked by internal squabbling and jockeying by others in the department vying for top jobs, all playing out against a backdrop of outrage and horror amid reports of children being held in squalid conditions and images of those who perished trying to make the trek.

McAleenan spent a lot of time south of the border, working on brokering major agreements with Central American countries on asylum, including El Salvador.

A program that has turned away some 42,000 migrants to await their asylum claims in Mexico expanded under his watch. And the Trump administration also effectively ended asylum at the southern border, making anyone who crossed through a third country on their way to the US ineligible.

A pregnant migrant climbs the border fence from Tijuana, Mexico, December 27, 2018. (AP/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)

The 240,000-person department is tasked with election security and cybersecurity, disaster response and even the Secret Service. But in Trump’s world, Homeland Security means one thing: immigration. The president’s signature issue makes the department his focus and his ire. Balancing a White House eager to push major changes with the reality on the ground is a constant challenge.

McAleenan, who has years of experience with border issues, was seen in Trump’s circle as someone who could get control over the crisis, despite his stance as a moderate who pushed for aid to be restored to Central American nations.

But McAleenan, like others in the job before him, was opposed to an enforcement operation targeting families here illegally who were in the interior of the US, saying it was not worth the resource drain given the crisis at the border.

Trump, the then-acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and others said it would be a show of force that could help deter people from coming in. Details of the operation were leaked to the media. Some, like former ICE director Tom Homan, seemed to point a finger at McAleenan during an appearance on Fox News. He later said he wasn’t accusing him.

McAleenan weathered that storm, but Mark Morgan, acting head of Customs and Border Protection, and Ken Cuccinelli, acting head of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, have often seemed the mouthpiece for the department, often on television fronting Trump’s policies, while McAleenan was behind the scenes working on agreements to stop the flow of migrants.

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