Early Trump Administration — and McAleenan — Communications About Immigration Policy

Last week, in an interview with the Washington Post, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan expressed his frustration with his lack of control over his department’s hardline anti-immigration messaging.

The article was published a week after he announced that the administration would end its “catch and release” practice of allowing migrant families apprehended at the border to enter the United States, instead returning them to their country of origin, or to Mexico under the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols. And just a few days after its publication, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation that will require immigrants to prove they can obtain health insurance before they can get a visa.

McAleenan’s interview — in which he is portrayed as “isolated within the administration and overshadowed by others who are more effusive in their praise for President Trump” — was criticized by Trump allies such as Brandon Judd, the president of the National Border Patrol Council. And a former Customs and Border Protection official who had worked with McAleenan said that McAleenan’s “isolation was self-imposed.”

McAleenan’s apparent public relations efforts were reminiscent of similar stories that arose about former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen after the spring 2019 Department of Homeland Security shakeup that ousted her from the administration. McAleenan played a lead role in the development of the administration’s zero-tolerance policy that led to the separation of thousands of immigrant children from their parents, recommending to then-Secretary Nielsen that she adopt the policy. (According to the Post, McAleenan is “among the only administration officials who speak about the policy with remorse.”)

But as with Nielsen, only so much distance can be created between softened press clips and McAleenan’s direct involvement in some of the Trump administration’s harshest immigration policies. Moreover, documents obtained by American Oversight offer a glimpse of McAleenan’s previous efforts to do quite the opposite — to show himself as instrumental in the execution of Trump’s immigration policy goals.

In one telling example from August 2017, previously reported on by American Oversight, a senior policy adviser at CBP asked a public affairs official for assistance in pushing such a narrative for McAleenan, who was then the CBP commissioner. “Just a friendly reminder to please put me in touch with someone on your staff who can assist with a few paragraphs on [McAleenan’s] media exposure,” the policy adviser wrote, saying that he needed “to show in a concise but detailed way that [McAleenan’s] national and social media presence makes him the defacto government public representative of the Wall, Travel Ban, Counter-Border Immigration, etc.”

Being seen as a prominent supporter of Trump’s border wall was a priority for McAleenan, as revealed not only in last week’s Washington Post story, but in other documents American Oversight has uncovered. One set of records from the Department of Homeland Security includes a July 2017 email interaction between McAleenan and Nielsen, in which then-CBP Commissioner McAleenan said his agency was “working aggressively to initiate border wall construction,” and that it was ”on track to initiate prototype construction this Fall.”

“We are working to show visible construction occurring before the one year mark of the President’s tenure,” McAleenan added.

McAleenan was similarly concerned with delayed construction of Trump’s signature campaign promise a month later in an email discussion about how the Buy American Act would affect the construction timeline. “Our number one objective is to avoid having the schedule slip,” he wrote. “Buy American issue is second, but we get the politics and want to go in eyes open with fingerprints from the relevant White House players.” McAleenan also said that he flew back to Arizona on Air Force One “on the off chance we need to brief the President on the way to Yuma… Cool plane though!”

In November 2017, McAleenan wrote to Border Patrol officials about a case of family separation that had occurred before the implementation of the zero-tolerance policy, appearing to be eager for Immigration and Customs Enforcement — not CBP — to get the blame for it. “If ICE ERO [Enforcement and Removal Operations] call to separate, let’s get that info to OPA for any follow up inquiries.”

Related Documents

As acting CBP commissioner, McAleenan was included on a February 2017 memo from then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly about an executive order issued by Trump the previous month. That order, from Trump’s first week as president, instructed CBP to expand the detention of migrants apprehended while crossing the border, a major first step in the administration’s efforts to end “catch and release.” On September 24 of this year, McAleenan announced that the administration would no longer allow apprehended families to enter the U.S. — a month after he announced a new rule allowing families to be detained indefinitely.

The memo also discussed the implementation of other aspects of Trump’s early executive orders, including hiring more CBP officers, building the border wall, and commissioning a border-security study. 

The same set of documents from Homeland Security also included emails from 2016, exchanged among DHS officials Marc Rosenblum, Andrew Kuepper and Kelli Ann Burriesci. In September of that year, they discussed an article about the rationale for building a border wall, and came back to that email chain after the presidential election to discuss the drafting of a report on the “state of the border.”

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