Kirstjen Nielsen, the US secretary of Homeland Security who oversaw the Trump administration’s controversial immigration policies, has resigned.
US President Donald Trump announced Nielsen’s departure on Sunday, underscoring the president’s intent to toughen immigration policy amid a surge in border crossings along the southern border.
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A senior administration official said Trump, who has recently expressed growing anger about the situation at the border, asked for Nielsen’s resignation.
“Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen will be leaving her position, and I would like to thank her for her service,” the US president tweeted.
….Mexico must apprehend all illegals and not let them make the long march up to the United States, or we will have no other choice than to Close the Border and/or institute Tariffs. Our Country is FULL!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 8, 2019
Kevin McAleenan, the current US Customs and Border Protection commissioner, will become acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
During her 18 months at the head of the powerful agency, Nielsen became synonymous with the controversial policy of separating children from their parents, leading to frequent calls for her resignation from progressive groups and the Democratic opposition.
In a tweet late on Sunday, Nielsen said that she would stay on until Wednesday.
“I have agreed to stay on as Secretary through Wednesday, April 10th to assist with an orderly transition.”
Jeff Hauser, a lawyer and executive director of the Revolving Door Project, which examines government appointments, believes Trump influenced Nielsen’s decision to resign.
“She was effectively fired,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s possible that Trump, in a passive-aggressive manner, made it that she felt like she had to resign to retain some scrap of dignity, but I think she was forced out because Trump is, as he has often been, in a politically perilous moment.”
The move came just two days after Nielsen and Trump visited the Mexican border in California together, with the president delivering a stern message to undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers: “Our country is full.”
He had previously threatened to close the US-Mexico border if Congress and Central American governments did not act to stem a flow of migrants that saw Nielsen last week order an “emergency surge” of personnel to handle the situation.
Bill Schneider, a political analyst and public policy professor at George Mason University, said Nielsen’s resignation reflects Trump’s vision for tougher immigration policies.
“The president does not want to face his supporters again next year and have to answer for the fact that illegal immigration has become a more serious problem than when he took office,” he told Al Jazeera. “He’s embarrassed by that and he holds her partly responsible.”
“He [Trump] was pressuring her to refuse to accept any more applications for asylum, which would’ve been illegal, and there were clearly places where she drew the line and refused to do what the president wanted her to do.”
Nielsen, 46, had been DHS secretary since December 2017.
Her relationship with the president had long been said to be difficult. But despite reports that he complained constantly about her performance – and that he believed she was not harsh enough – she remained steadfastly loyal.
Last month, she defended the president’s declaration of a national emergency to secure funding for his pet project, a wall on the US-Mexico border.
“Nielsen is not a showman, she’s not a good actor in this television show that Trump is producing of racism and bigotry at the border, and so I suspect in time he needed to get someone in that position he felt could ratchet up pressure and increase attention at the border,” said Hauser.
Trump has made a clampdown on undocumented immigration a centrepiece of his two-year-old presidency, leading chants of “Build that wall” at his rallies as he sought to cut back on the number of immigrants entering the US without proper documentation.
Border Patrol estimates put the number of migrants passing through Mexico at over 100,000 in March – most from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – the highest monthly figure in nearly a decade, according to Nielsen.
Trump cut aid to those three countries last month in response to the surge.
“When even the most radical voices in the administration aren’t radical enough for President Trump, you know he’s completely lost touch with the American people,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi added it was “deeply alarming that the Trump administration official who put children in cages is reportedly resigning because she is not extreme enough for the White House’s liking”.