Who’s Running DHS? Right Now, Nobody

“I put in a very good man who’s highly respected, and he’s acting right now. We’ll see where that goes. As you know, I like acting. It gives you great flexibility.” U.S. President Donald Trump speaking to reporters at the White House on Friday, November 1, 2019, when asked if Chad Wolf would be the next secretary  of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

There’s a revolving door at the office of the Secretary of the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS). But it’s not just due to a lack of organization on the part of the Trump administration.

By having a series of “acting” directors of DHS, Trump is bypassing the requirement for congressional approval for the head of such a large and important part of the United States government. DHS is the third largest cabinet level department, after the Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs. The person leading DHS is the face of U.S. policy on immigration for a country that calls itself “a nation of immigrants”. While immigration is second to the economy in terms of the most pressing issue for the majority of the country’s citizens, it is the lynchpin of the president’s bid for re-election and what got him elected four years ago as he led calls to “build the wall” between the U.S. and Mexico.

It’s not just the office of the head of the department that’s vacant. There are 20 leadership positions at DHS that are either vacant or temporarily filled by someone considered “acting”.


On July 2, 2019, DHS’s own internal investigation urgently admonished the department for its “dangerous” treatment of the immigrants in its custody. The Trump administration has continued and amplified the arrests and detention of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers from other countries, holding them in a network of public and privately-run, for-profit detention centers.


The mistreatment cited in the internal investigation has been documented and decried by many, including a bevy of presidential aspirants who visited a Homeland, Florida facility on June 26, 2019. Instead of addressing the problems, Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan first denied the charges and then simply quit in October.

The Justice Department and the White House Personnel Office told Donald Trump that his recent picks for DHS chief, Mark Morgan and Ken Cuccinelli, were not eligible for consideration because of rules stipulating having worked at least six months at the department under a confirmed appointment. Since last week, no one has even been “acting” the role of secretary of the unwieldy agency, whose duties run the gamut from deportation (ICE) and disaster relief (FEMA) to the Secret Service, which provides bodyguards to the President. Trump’s next choice is Chad Wolf, who previously worked as Chief of Staff during Kirstjen Nielsen’s tenure.

Nielsen was the fifth and last head of DHS to be confirmed by the Senate. She began her job in December 2017 and resigned in April 2019. McAleenan then moved up from heading Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a DHS entity that now has no one at the helm. Nielsen is most known for a clumsy response to the separation of asylum-seeking families at the Mexican border, with at least 2,342 children dispersed, traumatized and still not entirely accounted for.

The Department of Homeland Security was created in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks when four airplanes were hijacked and directed to crash into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. At the present time, DHS is composed of: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, and a dozen more offices, including the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.


Actors of DHS

Chad Wolf

Background: Wolf worked for the TSA from 2002 to 2005, leaving to become a lobbyist for tech companies bringing IT workers from India on H-1B visas. He returned to the TSA in 2017, and then joined Nielsen as DHS Chief of Staff in December 2017. In February 2019, he became  the first Undersecretary of Strategy, Policy and Plans (PLCY).

Favors an unshaven look. As Chief of Staff, authored a list of methods to deter Mexican and Central American immigration, featuring the advice to “Separate family units”. 

Quote: “My job was not to determine whether [family separation] was right or wrong policy. My job at the time was to ensure that the Secretary had all the information she needed.”


Kevin McAleenan

Position: Acting Secretary of DHS from April 2019 to October 2019, extended to November 7.  Before that, he was Commissioner of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).

Stepped down from the podium and walked out when protestors began shouting the names of children who have died in immigrant detention when he was to speak at Georgetown University on October 7, 2019. Also known as the man holding up the map of Hurricane Dorian’s path with a black marker line hand drawn to include Alabama, which the president had mistakenly said was at risk.

Quote: Claimed CBP facilities on the border were providing children with “appropriate meals… and showers as soon as they can be provided,” despite reports to the contrary. He stated unironically that he was resigning to spend more time with his wife and young children.


Ken Cuccinelli II

Position: Acting Director of UCSIS since June 2019, one of Trump’s picks to take over DHS until deemed ineligible under DHS’s own guidelines.

Background: Former Attorney General of Virginia.

Quote: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and will not become a public charge.”

Said that homosexuality is “against nature,” abortion should be illegal, supports English-Only legislation, questioned Barack Obama’s birth certificate, and would like to repeal birthright citizenship.

Proposal: Green card holders cannot be considered for citizenship if they receive food stamps, Medicaid, housing vouchers or other government subsidies, or may be likely to use them, which went into effect Oct 15.


Mark Morgan

Position: Acting Commissioner for CBP, Morgan stepped up to fill the void when Kevin McAleenan moved on to act as head of DHS. Morgan spent 20 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) before moving to the Border Patrol (BP) in 2016. He has bounced around BP, CBP and ICE ever since.

Quote: “If this president asked me [to head ICE] I would say yes in a heartbeat.”

After the mass raids in Mississippi in August 2019, when 680 undocumented workers were arrested at several chicken processing factories, a tearful 11 year old was videotaped crying, “I need my dad. He is not a criminal.” Morgan spoke to CNN immediately afterwards, saying, “I understand that the girl is upset and I get that. But her father committed a crime,” even though immigration transgressions are civil, not criminal, violations.


Thomas Homan

Position: Acting Director of ICE from January 2017 to June 2018.

Under his tenure, ICE agents misrepresented their authority to arrest immigrants, and subjected detainees to brutal conditions and inhumane treatment.

His resignation more than a year ago did not stop him from being called before the House Judiciary Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee on September 26, 2019 with regard to ICE’s detention policy.

Quote: As numerous witnesses described unlawful arrests and mistreatment in ICE detention, Homan called their testimony “inaccurate and disgusting”. Shouted “I’m a taxpayer. You work for me!” as Chairperson Pramila Jayapal banged her gavel when he refused to relinquish the microphone.

Currently a Fox News contributor.


Kirstjen Nielsen

Position: Last confirmed Secretary of DHS, December 2017 to April 2019. Instituted the department’s “zero tolerance policy” when it first started separating immigrant children from their parents and caregivers, and when women and children were tear-gassed near the Tijuana border crossing.

Quote: About family separation, she said, “I do not regret enforcing the law.” When asked whether Donald Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador and some places in Africa as “shithole countries”, she stated, “I do not recall that specific phrase being used.”

Her invitation to a Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women Summit caused Hillary Clinton to cancel her appearance.


General John F. Kelly

Position: Head of DHS from December 2016 until July 2017, leaving to become the White House’s Chief of Staff and ceding DHS to Kirstjen Nielsen. 

Finally left the government to join the board of private prison corporation Caliburn International, which he had been previously linked to while with the government. Caliburn runs the Homeland detention center, whose facilities Kelly was photographed touring  in a golf cart in April 2019 just before several congresspersons visited to witness abusive and inhumane treatment of children at the center.

Quote:  “A lack of ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”

When asked to explain why many undocumented young people were not registering for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), he replied, “The difference between 690,000 and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses.”


Jeh Johnson

Position: Head of DHS during the Obama administration from 2013 to 2017. Oversaw the summer of 2014 when an unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors from Central America began arriving at the U.S. southern border.

Quote:  “I spent hours with hundreds of kids in holding stations in South Texas, in Arizona and New Mexico, and I’d always ask them the same question: “Why did you come here? Did you not hear our message about the journey, of the dangers?” I’d ask the parents the same thing. And they’d basically tell me the same thing. Which is, “Yes, but it is more dangerous at home.” And they’d make the conscious choice to send their children to the United States, basically to save their lives. So as long as the underlying conditions exist in these three countries – and they are really bad, they are as bad as war-torn areas on earth – we are going to be banging our heads against the wall in dealing with this problem.

“We started down the road of investing in Central America, aid to Central America, in 2016, $750 million. But those amounts in subsequent years have been going down. It needs to go in the opposite direction.”

Families were held together in detention facilities, which was heavily protested by humanitarians at the time.


Julie Myers Wood

Position: Julie M. Wood ran ICE from 2006–2008. Wood is also on the Board of Directors of GEO Group, the foremost privately–run prison corporation in the country. GEO Group is detaining 11,000 persons related to immigration in their centers on behalf of DHS and the federal government and earned $2.3 billion in 2018.

Wood was appointed by George W Bush but never voted in by Congress.

In 2007, Wood was a judge at an ICE employee costume contest in which the winner donned black face to embody a Jamaican detainee who escaped from a Florida facility.

In 2008, Hiu Lui Ng died of liver cancer and a broken spine in a Rhode Island immigrant detention facility. He had been dragged by employees who did not believe he was really sick.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Michael November 7, 2019 11:20 am 

    There are so many reasons to impeach Trump, it is almost ludicrous that the focus is nearly solely on his Ukraine problem!

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