President Donald Trump, continuing his purge of the Department of Homeland Security, has pushed out the head of US Citizenship and Immigration Services — the agency responsible for legal immigration into the US, including asylum — and reportedly plans to replace him with former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli.
L. Francis Cissna, who was confirmed as USCIS director by the Senate in 2017, emailed USCIS employees Friday that “at the request of the president” he had submitted his resignation effective June 1.
It’s not yet official that Cuccinelli — a vociferous immigration hawk, but not an immigration expert — will be nominated to replace him. Without a formal Senate confirmation process, the Trump administration would have to find some way to install someone completely outside DHS as the acting head of an agency — something that even the Trump administration, which has often made decisions that push the boundaries of federal vacancies laws, hasn’t yet tried to do. But the swap is expected, according to the Washington Post.
The move is hardly out of the blue. Trump senior adviser and immigration whisperer Stephen Miller has been publicly agitating for weeks for Trump to fire Cissna; Trump has made it known, meanwhile, that he wants to hire Cuccinelli for some sort of administration position overseeing immigration.
But the choice is nonetheless likely to be even more controversial than most of Trump’s executive-branch reshuffles have been, for two reasons: Cissna is widely respected among immigration hawks — including some Republican senators — and Cuccinelli is widely despised by many establishment Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
At a time when his White House clearly wants to exercise more control over the way that DHS and its agencies work, and silence critics who worry that aggressive moves might be unwise or illegal, Trump is essentially replacing one of the biggest and most expert immigration hawks in his own administration with someone whose primary qualification is loyalty to Donald J. Trump.
Trump just fired one of the most productive agency heads in his government
Cissna was initially regarded as the biggest immigration hawk at Trump’s Department of Homeland Security.
Under his watch, USCIS has instituted massive changes to how immigration applications are reviewed (resulting in delayed approvals and increased denials). His agency participated in the efforts to strip deportation protections from over a million immigrants by ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) and sunsetting several countries’ Temporary Protected Status designations. (The fate of both DACA and TPS is held up in several pending court cases, none of which have yet been taken up by the Supreme Court.)
He overhauled the process for granting H-1B visas, making it more difficult for employers to win visas for high-skilled workers (expected to go into effect later this year). He attempted to make it easier to deport people for overstaying student visas. And his asylum officers participated in Trump’s efforts to crack down on asylum-seekers crossing the US/Mexico border, from the short-lived “asylum ban” to the ongoing policy of returning thousands of asylum seekers to Mexico — a policy under which, asylum officers told Vox, officers and their supervisors have been overruled to force asylum-seekers back to Mexico even when they might be in danger there.
But Miller was reportedly frustrated that Cissna wasn’t doing enough to implement the president’s demands to stop people from coming. Specifically, Miller has reportedly been upset that USCIS isn’t writing and finalizing regulations more quickly — a process that generally takes months or years throughout the government. USCIS’ proposal to make it significantly easier to deny green cards to immigrants by deeming them likely to be a “public charge,” for example, hasn’t yet been finalized after five months of reviewing (a record number of) comments on the draft proposal.
Since the ouster of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director Ron Vitiello and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen last month, the White House has taken a much more aggressive stance with DHS and its agencies, sending public memos and executive orders directing agencies to write regulations within a certain amount of time.
Cissna never publicly objected to any of this. However, he is known to take a more conservative approach to existing law and regulations than Trump or Miller — and on at least one occasion, to defend USCIS employees from Miller rants that escalated into personal attacks.
When Nielsen was ousted, Miller and other officials confidently predicted Cissna would be out within a week. When establishment immigration restrictionists — including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), for whom Cissna worked during the Obama administration — rallied to protect him, the marching orders were stayed. But now, the restrictionists have lost to the Trumpists.
Mitch McConnell does not want to confirm Ken Cuccinelli
Ken Cuccinelli is an outspoken immigration hawk — but he’s not an immigration policy expert. His experience as a state attorney general involved litigating over Obama policies he felt were illegal, which is very different from running the US’ biggest immigration agency and implementing notoriously complex immigration law and regulation.
If the Trump administration is looking for a loyalist, though, Cuccinelli’s lack of expertise could be an asset. Miller has made an effort to call the shots on the minutiae of immigration policy, including calling up midlevel officials and demanding status updates. A USCIS leader without his own strong opinions on what immigration law says would more likely be willing to defer to Miller’s (often extremely aggressive) interpretation of the president’s powers.
However, despite having been a Republican elected official, Ken Cuccinelli is not a safe bet for confirmation by the Republican Senate. The reason is simple: Mitch McConnell.
Cuccinelli is currently head of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which exists to support conservative candidates for Congress (mostly the Senate) — including in primaries against incumbent Republican senators. Cuccinelli and his organization have routinely attacked McConnell as an “establishment” figure.
In April, as rumors swirled that Trump was considering Cuccinelli for head of the Department of Homeland Security, McConnell told reporters that he had “expressed my, shall I say, lack of enthusiasm” for Cuccinelli to the president.
Senate Republicans have sometimes buckled to Trump to confirm nominees they haven’t been thrilled about, but they have managed to beat back two recent high-profile Trump nominees: both Herman Cain and Stephen Moore withdrew their nominations to the board of the Federal Reserve after it became clear they would not pass muster with the Senate.
Trump appears to think of himself as the head of the Republican party — including its members of Congress — and doesn’t tend to let Mitch McConnell tell him what to do. So it’s entirely plausible that he’ll nominate Cuccinelli and dare McConnell to vote him down.
If the Trump administration does find a way to install Cuccinelli at USCIS, it will have the loyalist it appears to want — instead of the expert restrictionist it has now pushed aside.