Trump Homeland Security ‘cleaning house’ to break Obama-era mentality

April 10, 2019 GMT

As President Trump’s shakeup at Homeland Security continues to rattle Capitol Hill, the administration says there’s a clear logic to the moves find people who can break through the bureaucracy that so far has thwarted much of the president’s agenda.

A senior administration official, briefing reporters Tuesday, said they’ve grown tired of watching important policies swallowed in the maw of red tape.

The resignation of Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and the cancelation of Mr. Trump’s nominee to head U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were meant to break with that old mentality.

Another move came late Tuesday when acting Deputy Secretary Claire Grady was forced to resign, the Associated Press reported. Her ouster seemed aimed at paving the way for Kevin McAleenan, currently the head of the border agency, to take over from Ms. Nielsen as acting secretary. Under the law Ms. Grady had been in line, but with her gone Mr. McAleenan, the man the president is counting on to reshape the department, can ascend.

One of his first decisions will be whether to keep Francis Cissna as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that handles legal immigration.

“At the end of the day it’s Kevin’s department to lead and he’s going to decide,” said the senior official who briefed reporters Tuesday. But the official made clear Mr. Cissna has disappointed the president.

“A lot of this administration’s top priorities run through USCIS and the policy work has not been completed,” the senior administration official said.

The crux of the argument against Mr. Cissna is that he’s failed to push through a number of high-profile policies Mr. Trump had expected, including a rule to prevent migrants from immigrating if they are likely to end up on the public dole, and changes to a major guest-worker program.

The administration was also looking to Mr. Cissna to take unilateral action to make it tougher for migrants at the border to take the first step toward asylum by tightening the definitions for claiming “credible fear” of persecution back home.

“One of the biggest frustrations is the fact that USCIS has not been able to change agency culture about ‘credible fear’ and asylum from the Obama years,” the official told reporters.

Yet Mr. Cissna has vehement defenders among the groups who have most vocally cheered the president’s get-tough approach to immigration.

“Cissna is the rare Trump employee who shares the president’s immigration vision and is competent,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “The frustration at the White House over the perceived lack of progress is real and is legitimate, but Cissna isn’t the problem.”

He said USCIS has actually tried to write some of the regulations that the White House has complained are overdue.

The roadblock, Mr. Krikorian said, has been elsewhere either at main Homeland Security headquarters, or within the White House itself, at the Office of Management and Budget.

USCIS has at least two dozen regulations in the public pipeline, and has also had to address a number of other Trump priorities such as writing H-1B visa reforms, working on the so-called “remain in Mexico” policy, handing three annual H-2B visa increases and nearly a dozen different reviews of Temporary Protected Status designations another major Trump priority.

Three regulations are actually waiting on the White House for approval.

Cissna defenders say he’s also been the biggest champion of Mr. Trump’s pro-American worker agenda, moving to cancel Obama-era regulations that doled out work permits to foreign visitors and tightening rules on the government’s guest-worker program for high-skilled foreigners.

The defenders also say Mr. Cissna led the push for “extreme vetting” of foreign travelers with a more detailed screening, including more in-person interviews of visa applicants.

“Who’s going to do a better job?” Mr. Krikorian said. “There isn’t anybody. There is no deep bench of immigration hawks with extensive experience and deep knowledge to take his place.”

Another key Cissna defender is Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Senate’s senior Republican, for whom Mr. Cissna used to work.

Mr. Grassley issued a stern warning this week to the White House to cool the personnel moves.

For his part Mr. Trump denied his moves amounted to “cleaning house” at the department.

“We have a lot of great people over there,” he said.

The only one he named was Mr. McAleenan.

“He’s acting, but I think he’s going to do a fantastic job,” the president said.