Hardliners urge Trump to keep immigration agency head amid shakeup

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Hardliners urge Trump to keep immigration agency head amid shakeup




Francis Cissna

A 52-year-old lawyer and former foreign service officer, Francis Cissna became director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in October 2017. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s dramatic purge of Homeland Security leaders is about more than personnel: It helps clear the way for him to take controversial new steps to curb illegal immigration, including an updated version of his furiously criticized family separation policy.

Leading the new charge is Trump’s top White House immigration aide Stephen Miller, who wants tent cities to house migrants on the border and is pressing to extend the amount of time U.S. immigration officials can detain migrant children beyond the current 20-day limit imposed by a federal judge. Miller wants to force migrant parents arrested at the border to choose between splitting apart from their children or remaining together indefinitely in detention while awaiting court proceedings, according to five people familiar with the plans.

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Those hard-line policies could get new traction after a major staffing shakeup at the Homeland Security Department over the past several days. Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned Sunday and Secret Service Director Randolph Alles was ousted Monday. Those moves came after the White House on Friday unexpectedly withdrew its nominee for director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Ronald Vitiello. Other officials could be on the chopping block in coming days, according to three other people familiar with the White House’s considerations.

The dramatic proposals and leadership purge are politically risky — family separation has sparked more political anger than almost any other issue in Trump’s presidency — and come as Trump has alarmed his fellow Republicans with abrupt threats to kill Obamacare and to shut down the border. But Trump is determined to make immigration central to his reelection push, betting that he can once again energize his core conservative voters on a promise to secure America’s borders.

Trump and Miller have become increasingly frustrated as the number of Central American migrants massing at the southwest border surges to levels not seen in a decade. Now Miller — who’s even started calling mid-level federal officials to demand they do more to stem the influx — will have a new opportunity to pursue his tougher approach amid the leadership vacuum at DHS.

Trump said Sunday that Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan would become acting DHS secretary. Other top DHS positions currently filled by acting officials will be the deputy secretary, ICE director, inspector general and administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Three of those jobs lack a nominee from the White House.

Miller did not respond to a request for comment.

So far, the Trump administration’s immigration policies haven’t deterred Central American families from trekking north — and they’ve faced trouble in U.S. courts.

A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked a plan to send certain non-Mexican asylum seekers back to Mexico while they await a resolution to their case. The order will not be effective until Friday evening, which allows the administration a chance for a quick appeal.

Still, Miller has a set of new policies he wants to try, according to the five people familiar with the plans, including a “binary choice” between separation or joint detention for families, an idea that first surfaced in the run-up to the midterm elections. Miller also wants to fast-track the regulation that would allow migrant children to be detained for longer than the 20-day limit. He’s eager to finalize the so-called public charge rule, which could block immigrants from obtaining a green card if they’ve received public benefits in the past or are deemed likely to do so in the future.

In addition, Miller has pressed for the federal government to set up tent cities along the border, so that cases can be swiftly resolved — and migrants with non-meritorious claims can be deported.

He’s also pushing for the purge at DHS to continue.

Miller has agitated in recent days to remove Francis Cissna, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, according to multiple people familiar with the move. Also in danger, according to current and former DHS officials, are Undersecretary for Management Claire Grady, who was passed over for the acting secretary job, and DHS General Counsel John Mitnick.

Within the agency, there’s a sense that the White House is “on a warpath,” said a senior DHS official.

“If you lose Claire, and John, and Francis, I don’t know where that leaves us. But it’s not in a good place,” this person said.

At least some of the personnel moves are getting pushback from immigration restrictionist groups, who like Cissna’s approach.

Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a grassroots organization that seeks lower levels of immigration, said he’s confounded by reports that Cissna may be removed from his post at USCIS.

“He’s great. He’s worked in this issue for years, he’s extremely knowledgeable,” Beck said. “He’s exactly the type of person who needs to be in DHS in leadership.”

But Miller has pressed Cissna, unsuccessfully, to launch more experimentally and legally questionable policies, according to three people familiar with the situation.

Cissna’s defenders contend that he tried to adhere to the law while Miller pressed to overstep legal boundaries.

“If they push out the uber-competent guy that the left hates because he’s getting things done within the law and the right loves because he’s actually being faithful to the president’s campaign promises, they’re even bigger idiots than we already know,” one former DHS official said.

Eliana Johnson, Gabby Orr, Josh Gerstein and Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.

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