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Trump taps Mark Morgan, former Obama official who supports border wall, to head ICE

President Trump tapped Mark Morgan, who briefly ran the Border Patrol under the Obama administration, as his choice for director of ICE. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump announced his choice as director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Sunday, tapping a former FBI official who frequently appears on cable news advocating for the president’s immigration policies.

In a tweet, Trump called Mark Morgan, who briefly ran the U.S. Border Patrol under President Barack Obama, “a true believer and an American Patriot. He will do a great job!”

Trump, who has made tougher immigration enforcement a pillar of his presidential campaign and his administration, recently pulled the nomination of his previous choice to run ICE, saying that he wanted to go in “a tougher direction.”

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In Morgan, Trump has found a vocal advocate for some of his positions, particularly the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico. Morgan has said such a wall would be an effective way to reduce illegal border crossings.

Trump’s Twitter announcement that Morgan “will be joining the Trump Administration as the head of our hard working men and women of ICE” caught White House aides and Homeland Security officials by surprise. They had not been informed Morgan was Trump’s choice, and at ICE, senior leaders learned of the decision from the president’s tweet, according to two senior administration officials.

After Trump’s morning tweet, it was not immediately clear whether Trump had formally nominated Morgan or was naming him in an acting capacity. He clarified that on Sunday evening with a tweet saying that he was nominating Morgan as director, a post that is subject to Senate confirmation. Trump said that Matthew Albence — who has served as ICE’s acting deputy director and has been leading the agency since early April — would be the agency’s acting director during the confirmation process.

Trump has said he likes having agency leaders in an acting role because it gives him more flexibility to change personnel if they do not perform to his liking. Trump last month cleared out the leadership ranks of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, and has sought to install officials whom he perceives as loyal to the White House.

Morgan, who had been in his position at Border Patrol only a few months before he was ousted shortly after Trump took office, seems to have auditioned for his new job largely via television appearances.

Particularly on Fox News, Morgan has given his support to the president’s declaration of a national emergency to enable him to build a border wall. And he often recounts his time working on the border in El Paso and tracking MS-13 in California during his long career in the FBI.

“I actually supervised the MS-13 Gang Force in Southern California,” Morgan said on Fox host Tucker Carlson’s show in January. “We used to catch them on surveillance wires, and they would laugh. MS-13 gang members would laugh how easy it was to go back and forth between the Mexico and U.S. border.”

Trump has called Morgan after his TV appearances to praise his performance, according to a U.S. official and an outside adviser to the president. Trump has told advisers that he likes getting support from a former Obama administration official who is also willing to back his tougher policies, administration officials have said.

At DHS, Morgan is viewed as a capable and hard-charging law enforcement official, but he was widely resented during his Border Patrol tenure by the agency’s senior officials and union chief Brandon Judd.

In 2014, then-FBI Director James B. Comey sent Morgan on temporary duty to help overhaul Border Patrol use-of-force policies after a series of deadly shootings by agents. Morgan had to contend with an insular Border Patrol culture, public perceptions of a lack of accountability and a union whose leaders wield considerable clout.

Two years later, when Morgan left the FBI for good to become Border Patrol chief, Comey was among those who praised the decision.

“Mark’s outstanding investigative work and leadership have been an incredible asset to the FBI, and he will be missed,” said Comey, who was fired by Trump in May 2017.

Morgan, a former Marine who ran the FBI’s El Paso office, was the first Border Patrol chief to come from outside the agency. Senior Border Patrol officials struggled with the sight of an outsider wearing the green uniform who hadn’t paid his dues working “the line” with the rank and file.

The changes he helped institute were widely seen as a success, and officer-involved shootings at U.S. Customs and Border Protection have declined from a high of 55 in 2012 to 15 last year, a 73 percent drop.

“He was the first Border Patrol chief to come from outside, and he was strong on accountability and use of force,” said Gil Kerlikowske, the CBP commissioner during Obama’s second term and Morgan’s superior. “But those were the reasons the union opposed him.”

Morgan worked closely with then-Deputy CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, but Morgan was forced out days after Trump took office, a move viewed at the time as a favor to Judd, the union chief who endorsed Trump and backed his plan for a border wall.

“He didn’t know the job to begin with,” Judd told the Associated Press in 2017. “He had to go on a tour of all the Border Patrol sectors to get an understanding. We needed a chief to hit the ground running.”

The career Border Patrol official who replaced Morgan, Ronald Vitiello, became Trump’s previous choice to lead ICE, but the White House abruptly pulled his nomination last month.

Trump blindsided DHS officials with his decision to go another way. Kirstjen Nielsen, then the DHS secretary, learned from Capitol Hill officials about Vitiello’s removal and could not reverse it, according to a former senior administration official. Stephen Miller, the president’s hard-line aide overseeing immigration policy, pushed the president to get rid of Vitiello, according to officials.

Albence, who will lead ICE while Morgan’s confirmation process plays out, has been in charge of the agency since early April, after Vitiello’s departure. Albence has coordinated with the White House on immigration policy, and he notably pushed back against an idea White House officials floated twice in recent months suggesting that ICE transport immigration detainees to ‘sanctuary cities’ for release. Albence wrote that such a plan would create an “operational burden” on an already strained agency and that the expense would be difficult to justify.

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McAleenan, now the acting head of DHS, and Morgan are facing an unprecedented surge of Central American migrant families crossing the border to apply for humanitarian asylum. Illegal crossings have reached a 12-year high, pushing U.S. immigration enforcement to “the breaking point,” according to McAleenan.

The acting secretary praised Trump’s announcement.

Morgan’s “record of service is needed to address the crisis at the border and support the men and women of Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” McAleenan said in a statement. “The depth of his experience will be an asset to the Department and I look forward to working with him.”

Trump’s frustrations with a surge in border crossings prompted him to fire Nielsen last month. She had been the frequent target of criticism from immigration firebrand and Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, whose show is a must-see for the president.

Morgan appeared on the show last Wednesday. The host asked him to address rumors he was under consideration to lead ICE.

Morgan said no one from the White House had called him or had a conversation “at all” about leading the agency, calling the reports “rumors.”

“But if this president asked me to come up, I’d say yes in a heartbeat,” Morgan said. “This isn’t based on ideology, this is based on 30 years of law enforcement, and I know this border. The president’s doing the right thing, he’s right on this issue, and if he asks, I’d go work for him in a heartbeat.”

Alan Bersin, a top border official under the Obama and Clinton administrations, called Morgan a “steady, reliable professional.”

The move gives McAleenan the people he wants in place, said Bersin, who was CBP commissioner from 2010 to 2011. “If Kevin gets his way, we’ll get a sensible approach to the border, but that remains to be seen.”

Bersin said the immigration system is foundering because tens of thousands of families are seeking asylum and clogging the immigration court system. Naming Morgan could set up a team that would address issues with the asylum system and work closely with Mexico to block smuggling from Central America.

To achieve that, he said the agencies must also set enforcement priorities, as they did under the Obama administration, which focused on deporting serious criminals and recent border crossers. Trump scuttled those priorities and has said anyone here illegally could be deported, which pleased the immigration and Border Patrol unions that had backed his candidacy.

“One would hope that Trump and Miller would understand that following their advice, together with their own doing, has led them to real disaster,” Bersin said. “The problem is that they have always since the beginning confused toughness at the border with needless cruelty and substantial illegality.”

Bersin noted that Trump is deporting fewer migrants than were deported under Obama and past presidents.

“They haven’t created a successful deterrent,” he said. “ All in all, the Trump record has been the worst in 30 years.”

Paul Sonne, Maria Sacchetti and David Nakamura contributed to this report.