by Sara KAMOUNI
US Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, the front-line defender of the administration’s controversial immigration policies, announced her resignation Sunday, in a move linked by observers to the president’s anger over Central American border crossers.
Her departure marks the end of a tortured relationship with Donald Trump, who reportedly blamed her for a recent surge in the number of migrants crossing the southern border and felt she wasn’t tough enough to implement his crackdown.
During her 18 months at the head of the powerful agency, Nielsen became synonymous with the controversial policy of separating children from their parents, making her a frequent target of progressive groups and the Democratic opposition who repeatedly called on her to resign.
None of this, however, seems to have been enough for Trump, whose ever hardening push against illegal immigration has left no room for the 46-year-old, an old hand of the administration who signed on at the start of the real-estate tycoon’s presidency.
“Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen will be leaving her position, and I would like to thank her for her service,” Trump tweeted Sunday.
He added US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan would become acting secretary.
“Despite our progress in reforming homeland security for a new age, I have determined that it is the right time for me to step aside,” Nielsen said in a resignation letter she later shared on Twitter.
Nielsen’s resignation comes days after she and Trump visited the Mexican border in California together, where the president delivered a message to would-be illegal 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.
– Trump wants tougher –
On Friday, US media reported that Trump also pulled his nominee to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement department — saying he wanted someone “tougher” to lead the department — a sub-agency of Nielsen’s.
The personnel shake-ups were seen by observers as a signal the president wants to tack an even harder line.
“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,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sunday.
Nielsen initially joined the Trump administration in January 2017 as a an assistant to Trump’s first DHS secretary, John Kelly. When Kelly moved to the White House as Trump’s chief of staff in July 2017, Nielsen went with him as his deputy.
But by October she was back at DHS, this time as secretary. Disaster relief, cyber security, transportation security, the Coast Guard, customs and policing the borders all fall under the department’s purview.
– Family separations –
Most notably, however, she has become the face of the Trump administration’s fierce anti-immigration policy.
That included the widely condemned practice of separating migrant children from their parents as part of a “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all illegal border crossers.
Images of sobbing children being taken from their parents last year fuelled a national outcry that saw Democrats demand she resign, as condemnation poured in from the United Nations, human rights groups, and four former first ladies — all mothers — who called the policy “cruel” and “immoral.”
Nielsen’s relationship with the president had long been said to be difficult. But despite reports 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.
And when participants in a January 2018 White House session on immigration quoted Trump as referring to African nations as “shithole” countries, Nielsen came to the president’s defense.
“I did not hear that word used,” she told a congressional hearing.
Nielsen is just the latest of dozens of White House aides — from attorney general Jeff Sessions to press secretary Sean Spicer — to either resign or be sacked from a position in the Trump administration. (Agence France-Presse/AFP)