Kevin McAleenan spent nearly two decades at US Customs and Border Protection within the Department of Homeland Security. His tenure as acting Homeland Security secretary of the department was brief — predictably so. Not because of any particular failure on his part, but because he was given a mission impossible.
McAleenan’s resignation letter and statements from the President last week indicate he is leaving of his own volition, not being fired or asked to resign because of any perceived failures. However, the next acting secretary will face a similar predicament.
He or she may also be saddled with the additional burden of the “acting” title, seen as temporary or tentative. McAleenan was made acting secretary not while awaiting Senate confirmation but without a nomination that would indicate confidence, and provide stability and possibly some continuity.
It is important that the President quickly nominate someone who can be confirmed by the Senate and not install another temporary acting secretary. Four secretaries in under three years is too many for such a critical position in our federal government.
President Trump’s obsessive focus on the southwest border bedeviled McAleenan, as it did his predecessors. Although the department was formed after 9/11 with the primary mission of protecting the homeland from various threats, Trump has turned DHS into the “Department of Southern Border Enforcement.” For him, the chief measure of success is stopping all migrants from reaching the southern border.
By that metric, McAleenan was destined to fail. No DHS secretary can control the number of desperate people arriving at the border, whether to seek asylum or better lives for themselves and their families.
Even as the various departments and components of DHS continued to execute the broader mission, McAleenan’s time and attention were continually driven toward the southwest border. Much like former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who was forced to leave counterterrorism and cyber meetings with European partners to return for a border visit, McAleenan was often pulled away to the border. That is not an effective way to run the second largest agency in the federal government and it signals to the workforce that the other missions aren’t priorities.
While it is true McAleenan became acting secretary in the midst of a humanitarian crisis at the border, and apprehensions at the border have declined over the past few months, the numbers still remain relatively high. It’s too soon to know if they will continue to decline or will rise again, but measuring success by those numbers is shortsighted and wrong-headed.
Immigration policy cannot be based solely on what happens on the southwest border, when immigrants arrive at ports and airports and visa “overstays” remain prevalent. An outsized focus on building a wall and on apprehensions at the border detracts from the many other challenges facing our immigration system.
How McAleenan’s service during this tumultuous period will be judged remains to be seen. He will be tied to failed policies such as family separation and some of the policy changes that are being contested in the courts. But unlike the President and some of his hardline advisers, McAleenan seemed to understand the need to work closely with Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to address the root causes of the migration crisis.
However, whether some of the recent agreements reached with those countries are fully implemented is also to be determined. Those agreements are flawed in various ways. McAleenan’s successor should work to make sure the governments of the region are given resources and tools they need to address “irregular migration” where it begins.
Finally, whether any of these actions contribute to lessening the border crisis will depend not on who sits as homeland security secretary but whether and how Congress and the administration find common ground to fix our broken immigration system.