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What's Next For Immigration As Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen Leaves


A number of top officials at the Department of Homeland Security are on their way out. That includes the top official - Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Today, outside her home in Virginia, she said she was working to ensure a smooth transition.


KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: I share the president's goal of securing the border. I will continue to support all efforts to address the humanitarian and security crisis on the border.

CHANG: DHS has been unable to stop a surge of migrant families from crossing the southern border. That has clearly frustrated President Trump, and he's signaled that he now wants to take an even tougher approach. NPR's John Burnett is on the line with us from Austin to talk about what that tougher approach might look like. Hey, John.


CHANG: So, first, do we even know why Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen left? I mean, how much of a surprise was her departure?

BURNETT: Well, it was pretty abrupt. And she hasn't said exactly what her reasons for leaving were. In her resignation letter, there were definitely hints at her frustration. She said, I hope the next secretary will have the support of Congress and the courts in fixing the laws which have impeded our ability to fully secure America's borders.

Her defenders say she was really in an impossible situation. There is only so much federal agents can do to prevent people from crossing the border to ask for asylum unless Congress changes some laws. But the president's been growing really impatient with her for months.

CHANG: I mean, speaking of the courts, as she mentioned in that quote you just read, later today there was some news out of a federal court in California about the administration's policy of sending some asylum-seekers to Mexico to wait for their court dates.

BURNETT: That's right. One of her signature efforts to discourage asylum-seekers was this program that forces them to wait in Mexico while their cases work through U.S. immigration courts. DHS called it migrant protection protocols.

San Francisco Judge Richard Seeborg slapped a preliminary injunction on DHS and said you can no longer send immigrants back to Mexico. He said his order would take effect on Friday and that the 11 migrant plaintiffs should be allowed into the U.S. The policy was sort of in an experimental phase. It began at the San Diego border crossing in January. And it was recently expanded to Calexico and El Paso.

The ACLU, which argued the case, had this reaction - quote, "try as it may, the Trump administration cannot simply ignore our laws in order to accomplish its goal of preventing people from seeking asylum in the United States." And there's been no response yet from DHS.

But, Ailsa, it just shows you how difficult that Nielsen's tenure has been. So many Trump immigration initiatives have been blocked by federal courts.

CHANG: I mean, I can imagine it must be doubly frustrating, all these federal court decisions against the administration, and now, the historic number of border crossings by families and unaccompanied children.

BURNETT: Exactly. Later this week, the Border Patrol expects to report that there were more than 100,000 apprehensions in March alone. Immigration officials have just lately been gloomy about how their system is overwhelmed, talking about reaching the breaking point. DHS has had to pull agents from all across the system to pitch in at the border, processing all these immigrant families. And so immigration hardliners think that DHS is sort of waving a white flag.

CHANG: So if the administration wants to have more bolder actions, what kind of bold actions do we expect them to take?

BURNETT: Well, DHS has been in sort of a bunker mode and isn't talking about it. But Trump clearly wants an aggressive new team over immigration. I spoke with several immigration conservatives who were influential with the administration today, and they see three aggressive policy options on the table.

First, change the rules so that ICE can detain families together indefinitely until their asylum cases are adjudicated and they can be deported - and build tent camps to hold them on the border because there's not nearly enough room in ICE detention centers. And if they go that course, it will lead - it would lead to yet another big battle in federal court. We just saw this one come out in San Francisco.

Second, flood the zone with asylum officers, immigration judges and ICE attorneys, put migrants on what they call the rocket docket - turn them around and send them home. Of course, again, immigration lawyers are extremely leery, saying it will violate an asylum-seeker's due process.

And third, some hardliners are saying a version of family separation remains under consideration at the White House. So overall, the endgame is deterrence - convince Central Americans it's just no longer a good idea to cross the border.

CHANG: I'm struck that you mentioned family separation. They already tried family separation, and they gave up on it. So what would be different about it this time?

BURNETT: Well, back in October, DHS first floated this idea. And they've tried to rebrand it. A family that crosses the border unlawfully would be given a binary choice. They could decide if they want to give their child up, let the government put them in a youth shelter, or they could agree to be detained indefinitely together, possibly in a tent city. But this is really sort of a nuclear option. And it's so controversial, even among Trump boosters. They're not sure they want the administration to go there.

CHANG: That's NPR's John Burnett in Austin. Thanks, John. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.