The big news over the weekend was Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen becoming the latest sudden departure from the administration of President Donald Trump, and what comes next should be a big story in the coming days. Nielsen’s reportedly forced resignation shortly followed Trump’s withdrawal of Ronald Vitellio’s nomination as director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with Trump saying he wanted to go “in a tougher direction,” and there’s no telling where that might lead.
Despite Trump’s very tough talk and very tough actions regarding illegal immigration, there’s lately been a significant uptick in asylum-seekers and other immigrants trying to cross America’s southern border, and Trump is clearly displeased. Both Nielsen and Vitellio were fully on board with family separations and a sea-to-shining-sea border wall and other controversial Trump policies, but Trump won office largely tough talk and promises of tough action along the border, so of course he wants to go in an even tougher direction. Short of shooting any asylum-seekers or other immigrants tying to cross the border on sight, however, even the cruelest toughness might not provide a solution.
In her reportedly forced yet very gracious resignation letter, Nielsen wrote that “I hope the next Secretary will have the support of Congress and the courts in fixing the laws which have impeded our ability to fully secure America’s border and which have contributed to discord in our nation’s discourse. Our country — and the men and women of DHS — deserve to have all the tools and resources they need to execute the mission entrusted to them.” Which strikes us as quite craftily worded, given the short notice.
Nielsen still endorses Trump’s legislative agenda even as she’s being defenestrated, but she slyly alludes to the fact that she’s on the way out because she felt constrained by the current laws of the land. Given that her up-to-the-legal-limits tough gal approach never fared well with either Congress or the courts or popular opinion, her hope that an even tougher successor is probably faint and at least partly facetious. Nielsen’s tough-yet-law-abiding tenure never got good press, and we noticed that the Cable New Network kept featuring the most unappealing photos of her on Sunday, even though she’s objectively rather attractive by cabinet secretary standards, and any successor Trump might choose won’t fare any better. Good luck getting the feisty Democratic majority in the House or the slight Republican Senate majority and its skittish border state members to go along in a tougher direction.
All of which is a shame, as far we’re concerned. There’s a strong case to be made for some of Trump’s immigration law reforms, although we’ll stop well short of that shooting-asylum-seekers-on-sight that he’s probably tempted to do and his die-hard fans would surely endorse, but they’re not likely to get done in the next two years. or probably a few more years after that. In the meantime the most sensible proposal seems to be the one by formerly-far-right-wing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to fund enough extra immigration judges to handle the current backlog on the border according to American law and international treaty obligations.
On the whole, we’re going to miss Secretary Nielsen. Not only was she objectively rather attractive by cabinet secretary standards, she also struck as one of the few remaining grown-ups in the administration. She’s was the protege and hand-picked successor of Four Star Marine General John F, Kelly, who had taken a hard line at the DHS, and who was briefly the White House chief of staff who was expected to impose some order on the White House, and we expect that also had something to do with Trump’s dissatisfaction. Trump seems intent on being even tougher than the law allows, as usual, but we’ll see how that works out.