A week after beginning his reelection campaign with promises of mass deportations, President Trump sent the agencies responsible for immigration enforcement deeper into disarray on Tuesday, replacing his interim border chief with a figure he plucked from cable news punditry last month.
Mark Morgan, who Trump installed as acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in early June, will take over as acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, replacing John Sanders, according to two Department of Homeland Security officials and a legislative staffer briefed on the move.
Trump ran for president promising a sweeping immigration crackdown and a monumental border wall, but he has presided over the worst migration crisis in at least a decade while dizzyingly hiring and firing DHS officials. The shake-up Tuesday comes after weeks of interagency squabbles and political knifings among agency officials who are struggling to cope with a record surge of migrant families and squalid conditions inside U.S. Border Patrol detention cells stuffed beyond capacity.
Since April, the president has purged nearly all of the top officials remaining at DHS from the beginning of his term, leaving every immigration-related U.S. agency with an interim leader. Trump has said that he is seeking greater “toughness” from his border enforcers, bringing in figures who issue bold pronouncements on television but lack formal nominations and ways to deliver on Trump’s promises for “millions” of deportations and an ironclad border.
Immigration hard-liners in recent days have been pushing Trump to remove acting DHS secretary Kevin McAleenan at the moment when the policies McAleenan has advanced — including a deal with Mexico for an unprecedented immigration crackdown there — are beginning to yield results.
U.S. authorities detained more than 144,000 migrants last month along the Mexico border, the highest level since 2006, but preliminary reports indicate fewer have been crossing in recent weeks and others are being turned back by Mexican military forces.
McAleenan on Tuesday was en route to meetings with officials in Central America, where the Trump administration is seeking a separate accord that would allow the United States to send asylum seekers back to the first foreign nation where they step foot after fleeing their homelands.
Trump on Saturday called off an ICE roundup of families with deportation orders in major cities, five days after blowing the cover off the operation on Twitter.
McAleenan had challenged the feasibility and timing of the raids, worried that a backlash from Democrats would scuttle the White House’s request for $4.5 billion in supplemental funding to alleviate dire conditions in border detention cells and child shelters.
Morgan had pushed for the “family op” to go forward, and it was not clear whether the decision to move him from ICE to a loftier position at CBP was a consolation for losing out to McAleenan.
One person who has spoken with Trump about immigration said the president has heard from senior immigration adviser Stephen Miller and others around him that “everyone at DHS is weak.”
Trump regularly speaks about how a border wall has to be built before the election and immigration numbers have to go down, the person said.
“It is basically just throw everything at the wall at this point,” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve access to the president.
Tuesday saw the continuation of a purge of DHS leadership that Trump began in April, leaving every single border- or immigration-related agency at DHS with an acting leader who has not been confirmed by the Senate.
Trump announced more than a week ago that former ICE acting director Tom Homan would be a new “border czar” at the White House. Homan has not accepted the job.
Though the president was eager to name him, White House officials said no paperwork was ready to hire him and no formal position had been created.
Homan was concerned he could not disentangle himself from private interests to go back into public service, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s personnel announcements.
Similarly, Trump installed former Virginia attorney general and conservative activist Ken Cuccinelli at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, despite warnings from Senate GOP leaders they would not confirm him for the role.
Matt Albence, the deputy director of ICE who led the agency before Morgan’s arrival, will resume the role of acting ICE director, DHS officials said.
The move to install Morgan at CBP appeared to be a victory for Miller, whose attempt to make the same move last month was blocked by McAleenan, who wanted Sanders in that role.
Sanders served in the top CBP role barely two months, after McAleenan was promoted from the position to acting DHS secretary, replacing Kirstjen Nielsen, whom Trump ousted.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said DHS is in “chaos,” a troubling look for a massive federal agency founded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to enhance security in the United States.
“President Trump’s latest leadership change only worsens the chaos at the Department,” Thompson said in a statement. “DHS is charged with keeping the nation secure, but the President is putting its leadership through a constant game of musical chairs to fit his political agenda. . . . Leadership changes won’t change the fact that the Trump Administration’s cruel and abhorrent immigration policies are complete failures.”
Morgan worked at the FBI under then-Director James B. Comey, and he was brought in to CBP in 2014 to lead an overhaul of Border Patrol use-of-force policies. The effort was successful, but it irritated senior CBP officials, who viewed Morgan as an outsider who had not paid his dues by working as a rank-and-file border agent.
Morgan ascended to be head of the U.S. Border Patrol at the end of President Barack Obama’s second term, but he was removed from his job when Trump took office.
He worked his way into Trump’s good graces through appearances on Fox News during which he praised the president. Trump named Morgan to the top job at ICE last month, saying he wanted to go in a “tougher direction.”
Morgan had never worked at ICE, though, and made his preference for the top CBP job clear to colleagues.
A CBP official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the agency’s rank and file are divided over Morgan. But the official said Morgan’s FBI background allowed him to bring a different point of view to the sprawling agency.
Border Patrol union leader Brandon Judd, who criticized McAleenan in a Fox News op-ed Monday, praised Sanders in an interview Tuesday as a “brilliant” leader at CBP.
Though he and Morgan clashed when Morgan was Border Patrol chief, Judd said the two had “buried the hatchet” and he would welcome Morgan’s move to CBP “if he comes in and changes the culture of accountability for the better.”
Morgan and McAleenan have remained at odds, and tensions between them flared over the weekend when the president agreed to call off the ICE roundup of migrant families.
Trump said he had delayed the raids in up to 10 major cities for two weeks after McAleenan and others at ICE said they would be dangerous to pull off, partially because the president himself had publicly announced the sensitive law enforcement plans in advance on Twitter. Trump said he would give Democrats time to pass the legislation he demands.
In several days of meetings, McAleenan told the president and other immigration advisers that they doubted they could safely deport the large number of people Trump wanted to target and that authorities probably would have to resort to putting families in hotel rooms or releasing them again with ankle monitoring devices.
McAleenan also said that operations could be dangerous for agents because some local and state officials in Democratic districts were preparing to thwart the ICE operations.
Trump reluctantly agreed to cancel the raids and decided to couch the decision as a compromise with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), advisers said.
But the president has begun complaining to advisers about McAleenan. In the past two months, the president has also ousted the previous acting director of ICE, Ronald Vitiello, fired his DHS secretary, and removed the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, L. Francis Cissna.
Albence, who had only recently cleared his desk to make room for Morgan at ICE, will move back into his office again, DHS officials said.
Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.