Acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan at a Cabinet meeting in July. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Nearly six months after taking over the Department of Homeland Security as acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan has guided the United States out of a crisis at the southern border, but he also says he has lost command of the public messaging from his department and lacks some of the authority he was promised when he took the job.

Increasingly isolated within the administration and overshadowed by others who are more effusive in their praise for President Trump, McAleenan said he retains “operational” control of DHS — mainly the ability to coordinate work at the border among U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and Citizenship and Immigration Services.

But he acknowledged that he is losing the battle to keep DHS, which he views as a neutral law enforcement agency, from being used as a powerful tool for a partisan immigration agenda.

“What I don’t have control over is the tone, the message, the public face and approach of the department in an increasingly polarized time,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “That’s uncomfortable, as the accountable, senior figure.”

McAleenan was referring to recent DHS appointees who won their jobs after advocating aggressively for the president on television: Mark Morgan, the acting head of CBP, and Ken Cuccinelli, the acting USCIS director, who is rumored as a potential replacement for McAleenan.

Linda Rivas is an El Paso-based immigration attorney whose work regularly takes her to the dangerous Mexican border city of Juarez, where thousands of migrants are stranded as a result of the Trump administration’s new asylum policies. The work is pushing her to the limit, and there are too many people who need her help. (REF:murphyz0-v/The Washington Post)

The U.S. border with Mexico has been a source of exasperation to Trump for nearly two years, but under McAleenan it has become a place the president sees as a success. Since taking over in April after Kirstjen Nielsen’s ouster, McAleenan has delivered on the one thing that has mattered most to Trump: The monthly border arrest numbers that gauge migration flows have plunged by two-thirds. An array of new physical and administrative barriers are going up. The migration crisis that was potentially a major liability to Trump’s reelection bid has abated, at least for now.

That McAleenan would lead this turnaround has been something of a surprise to the immigration hard-liners who had labeled him a Democrat and an “Obama guy” with dubious allegiance to the White House’s immigration policies.

Yet McAleenan, 48, remains mostly an outsider in Trump world. The president has yet to nominate him for the DHS secretary position, and McAleenan’s future in the administration looks more and more tenuous, especially as political rivals try to elbow him aside.

Although he has clashed with some administration officials and other DHS leaders, McAleenan has embraced, implemented or crafted many of the administration’s other controversial immigration policies, measures that immigrant advocates say have endangered migrant families and shut the door to those fleeing persecution. McAleenan said he views the moves as justified in response to a record influx of families at the border that led to nearly 1 million arrests during the 2019 fiscal year that ended Monday.

White House officials declined to discuss why McAleenan has not been nominated despite expectations that he would be confirmed, and they also declined to address his frustrations, offering only praise for his work.

“Secretary McAleenan is doing a fantastic job implementing the president’s plan to secure the southern border, build the wall, halt illegal immigration and stop the dangerous practice of catch-and-release,” said deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley. “Thanks to the changes President Trump’s administration has put in place, now, if you try to violate our borders, you will be turned around and sent back to where you came from.”

McAleenan also has pleased Trump by speeding up construction on hundreds of miles of steel barriers across the desert, defending the president’s “border wall” as a major tactical benefit.

As a career law enforcement official who signed up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, McAleenan views the growing politicization of DHS with unease.

McAleenan has been more forthcoming than any other administration official about the regret he carries for his central role in the “zero tolerance” policy that separated more than 2,500 children from their parents last year. He told White House officials he would resign if asked to do it again, according to senior administration officials.


McAleenan in his Washington office in May. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

‘Words matter’

Morgan was removed as Border Patrol chief at the beginning of the Trump administration, and when the president brought him back as acting ICE director in May, he clashed with McAleenan almost immediately.

Morgan was eager to go forward with a mass roundup of Central American parents and children — the ICE “family operation” — but McAleenan stood in the way, arguing that it risked separating children from parents and provoking Democrats ahead of a crucial congressional vote on a $4.6 billion emergency aid package for the border.

McAleenan prevailed, and the bill passed with bipartisan support, dividing Democrats. But hard-liners accused McAleenan of leaking details of the ICE operation to scuttle it. Brandon Judd, the powerful head of the Border Patrol union who has been an informal adviser to the president, blasted McAleenan as incompetent and “anti-Trump” in a Fox News op-ed.

With McAleenan weakened, Morgan was named acting commissioner of CBP, and McAleenan’s handpicked ally for that job, John Sanders, was forced out.

Trump also brought in Cuccinelli, the conservative activist and former Virginia attorney general, to run USCIS. Unlike ­McAleenan, Cuccinelli is a natural politician who is at ease in front of television cameras.

Cuccinelli has emerged as a de facto spokesman for DHS, making appearances on cable news, sparring with reporters and weighing in on border developments even when they are beyond his agency’s purview. On Twitter, he is whimsical and provocative, posting selfies, dog pictures and musings on immigration.

While he and others embrace the White House’s rhetoric on immigration, McAleenan distances himself from it, at the risk of appearing insufficiently committed to the president.

McAleenan avoids the term “illegal aliens,” speaking instead of “migrants” and “vulnerable families.” Though “alien” is a U.S. legal term, McAleenan said the way people hear it carries “political, emotional and racial” overtones.

“I think the words matter a lot,” McAleenan said. “If you alienate half of your audience by your use of your terminology, it’s going to hamper your ability to ever win an argument.”


McAleenan tours the Paso del Norte Port of Entry in El Paso with Hector Mancha, a CBP field director, in July. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
‘The Trump train’

Since DHS was created in the aftermath of 9/11, successive U.S. presidents have placed a priority on having a Senate-confirmed leader running the bureaucratic juggernaut, which has 240,000 employees and a $50 billion annual budget. Trump has said he prefers keeping top officials in an “acting” capacity, retaining more flexibility to remove them. ­McAleenan has now been in the acting role for longer than any other chief in the department’s history.

Raised in Los Angeles, where his father taught sociology at Occidental College, McAleenan attended Amherst College in Massachusetts and law school at the University of Chicago. He took a course on race and law from a young faculty member, Barack Obama, and McAleenan would later donate to his presidential campaign.

McAleenan said he wanted to join the FBI well before 9/11 cemented his determination. Instead, he was recruited to the former U.S. Customs Service to establish an anti-terrorism office as the agency merged with the U.S. Border Patrol.

McAleenan rose through the ranks of the new CBP, leading travel safety and screening programs, and by age 35 he was the port director in charge of security at Los Angeles International Airport and 17 others.

He was the No. 2 official at CBP during Obama’s second term as president, and after Trump’s win, ­McAleenan was an obvious choice for commissioner, despite his reputation as a Democrat.

“Nobody has that depth of expertise,” said Ronald Vitiello, the former Border Patrol chief and former acting ICE director who was removed during a purge at DHS this spring. There are few other DHS leaders who have been around since the department’s creation and possess the same level of institutional knowledge, he said. “I think it’ll be a liability if he’s not around,” Vitiello said in an interview, arguing that the administration had been “succeeding on every level without the help of Congress” at the border.

McAleenan was confirmed as CBP commissioner in March 2018 in a 77-to-19 vote that reflected his standing with both parties. That standing has remained relatively intact despite several bruising appearances on Capitol Hill — some lawmakers who torch the administration during homeland security hearings have told him publicly they still regard him as a moderating influence in the administration.

Last month, McAleenan gave a counterterrorism speech that included some of the administration’s strongest statements yet that domestic hate groups and white nationalism are a growing security threat.

McAleenan also blocked an attempt by Cuccinelli and others to end a humanitarian program that gives USCIS authorities the ability to defer the deportation of immigrants undergoing medical treatment they would not be able to receive in their home countries. Hard-liners were befuddled by a Trump administration decision to extend — instead of eliminate — a program benefiting immigrants who lack lawful status.

Mark Krikorian, the director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank with restrictionist views that have had a major influence in the White House, said McAleenan deserves credit for “putting out the fire du jour at the border.” But he said McAleenan remains a poor fit to lead DHS.

“The DHS secretary should be somebody who is completely part of the team, and while McAleenan is not some guerrilla fighter of the resistance, he’s not really totally on board the Trump train,” he said. “That should be the case if you’re a Cabinet secretary dealing with one of the most important issues politically for the administration.”


President Trump watches over McAleenan, right, and Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart in July as they sign a “safe third country” agreement to restrict asylum applications to the United States from Central America. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
‘Went too far’

At a hearing on Capitol Hill in July, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) blasted McAleenan as “one of the key architects of the Trump administration’s child separation policy.” The label stung, in part, because it was true.

When McAleenan was the deputy commissioner of CBP under Obama, the idea of separating children from parents was locked in a drawer, a policy option considered too opprobrious and unpalatable, even if seen as a potentially effective deterrent.

The idea resurfaced under Trump, coming to the forefront in the fall of 2017 when the number of migrant families arriving with children was rising. White House officials including Stephen Miller were calling for drastic measures, along with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others at the Justice Department.

McAleenan took a lead role in writing the memo for Nielsen, along with then-ICE Director Tom Homan, recommending she adopt the “zero tolerance” prosecution strategy.

The decision has gnawed at him, and to date he is among the only administration officials who speak about the policy with remorse. Others continue to defend the separations, including Trump, and say the policy might have prevented the surge at the border that followed if the president had not given in to public pressure and ordered an end to the separations in June 2018.

McAleenan said the separations “went too far.”

“Zero tolerance” was “well intended,” he argued, because he and other administration officials who backed it saw a moral imperative in stopping smuggling networks from bringing families and children on dangerous trips to the border.

“How can we let these smugglers victimize these desperate families?” he said, describing his thinking at the time. “How can we let this flow continue to grow, with more people being victims and more kids dying on this journey, and not do everything in our power to try to stop it?”

McAleenan said he balanced that across what he expected would be a “very short-term impact of prosecuting that parent, with full intent to reunite that parent and child,” acknowledging now that it was a miscalculation.

“When you see the impact in the six-week period on 2,500-or-so families and understand the emotional pain for those children, it’s not worth it,” he said. “It’s the one part of this whole thing that I couldn’t ever be part of again.”


McAleenan speaks at an August news conference to announce new rules about how migrant children and families are treated in federal custody. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Nation of immigrants

The Democratic primary race has demonstrated the degree to which the immigration debate has shifted under Trump. The leading candidates have outlined proposals to freeze deportations, extend health-care benefits to immigrants living in the country illegally and decriminalize the act of crossing the border unlawfully, while blasting Obama-era enforcement as overkill.

Such proposals are anathema to McAleenan, who points out that then-Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.), and Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), along with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) joined other Democrats in voting for the 2006 Secure Fence Act to fund hundreds of miles of barrier along the Mexico border.

McAleenan traveled to Europe during and after the migration backlash and said he came away with an awareness of the risks of too much immigration, too fast.

“You have to have a system where generous countries of goodwill are not going to be overwhelmed,” he said. “We are a nation of immigrants. We absolutely need the energy that diverse peoples bring to our economy and our society.”

McAleenan defends some of the controversial policies he has implemented on the grounds that Democrats have dug in too deep against Trump. “Previously balanced elements of our political apparatus have overreacted to the president in such a way that they’re equally or more of the problem,” he said, citing Democratic insistence for months that the border crisis was “manufactured” despite his urgent warnings and pleas for help.

Gil Kerlikowske, who ran CBP during Obama’s second term, credited McAleenan with “bringing a level of order to DHS” and said a “great deal of fault” rests with Democrats. “When CBP was telling them this months and months ago before the end of last year, they said, ‘It’s not as bad as it was in 2000.’ ”

McAleenan makes a similar argument about the necessity of agreements with Mexico and Central America that have made it significantly more difficult for asylum seekers to gain entry into the United States. McAleenan also credits Trump with “changing the dynamic” by threatening Mexico with tariffs at the low point for CBP, when 5,000 migrants were streaming across the border each day.

“The key change was actually provided by the president,” McAleenan said.

Trump’s threats brought Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard rushing to Washington to change the president’s mind. At a key meeting, when the moment came for the administration to tell Mexico what the United States wanted, senior U.S. officials turned to McAleenan.

McAleenan has repeatedly traveled to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, spending far more time there than the secretary of state, advancing his signature policy initiative — bilateral “asylum cooperation agreements” that will give the United States the ability to reroute migrants who arrive at the U.S. border to Central America.

The trips have made McAleenan a front-page public figure in Central American capitals, helped by the fact that he speaks some Spanish and that his wife, Corina, who also grew up in Los Angeles, is originally from El Salvador.

The asylum agreements have yet to be implemented, but critics have denounced them for threatening to send asylum seekers to some of the very nations they are fleeing, where murder rates are among the highest in the world. McAleenan sees the accords as an alternative to the president’s previous impulse to cut off the region entirely and argues they will set the stage for a much broader development effort to address the root causes of migration.


McAleenan and his wife, Corina, right, greet Honduran first lady Ana García Carías at McAllen International Airport in McAllen, Tex., in June. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
Transcending politics

Asked whether he still considers himself a Democrat, McAleenan demurred.

“We are apolitical,” he said. “What you privately register as or what you’ve donated as have no bearing on how you conduct yourself in professional capacity.”

Last month at a Coast Guard hangar in San Diego, McAleenan and Morgan addressed a group of Border Patrol agents, CBP officers and Coast Guard personnel while waiting for Air Force One to arrive and bring Trump to visit new spans of the border fence.

A young Coast Guard member asked the men what brought them “joy” in their jobs. McAleenan told the group about meeting a CBP veteran with 49 years of federal service who was preparing to retire next month, and the sweeping changes and improvements he had witnessed in his career.

Morgan told the group he liked “doing hits” on radio and TV and “punching back” at Trump’s critics, mentioning his appearance the day before on the show of right-wing agitator Sebastian Gorka.

When Morgan finished, ­McAleenan reminded the group that their duties to uphold the law transcend politics: “It doesn’t matter who is in the White House — Bush, or Obama, or Trump — you guys all know that our job remains the same.”

The president landed soon after, and McAleenan and Morgan met him along a dusty span of the towering, brand-new fence. McAleenan, along with former DHS secretaries John F. Kelly and Nielsen, are among the “experts” the president said convinced him the barrier did not need to extend the full length of the border, and should be steel and see-through, not concrete.

Trump praised the structure’s technical properties at length, and Morgan periodically jumped in. At one point, Morgan demonstrated his loyalty, jabbing at the air and insisting the barrier was not the president’s “vanity wall.” Trump flashed a proud smile at reporters.


Trump talks with reporters as he tours a section of the southern border wall last month in Otay Mesa, Calif., along with McAleenan. (Evan Vucci/AP)