By Alicia A. Caldwell
President Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, has acted as an enforcer, though not an architect, of Mr. Trump’s often hard-line approach to illegal immigration, including last year’s controversial and short-lived policy of separating immigrant parents and children at the border.
Mr. Trump announced on Twitter Sunday that the Customs and Border Protection commissioner was being appointed acting secretary of the department. A career official with CBP, Mr. McAleenan was confirmed by the Senate for his current position last year by a vote of 77-19.
Mr. McAleenan authored a memo last spring that he and two other DHS agency heads signed recommending that parents be included in a Justice Department-led zero-tolerance plan to prosecute as many adult illegal border crossers as possible.
The policy was decried by Democrats and some Republicans alike before being scrapped amid an executive order and federal court order. More than 2,500 children were separated from their parents while the policy was officially in place between May and June.
A former Trump administration official familiar with the memo said it wasn’t an ideological decision. It was practical, the former official said, because expressly carving out any one group from the Justice Department’s prosecution effort would only lead to more people in that group trying to come to the country illegally.
Under Mr. McAleenan’s tenure, CBP oversaw a record low number of arrests at the border in the earliest months of the Trump administration, followed by a record number of immigrant families crossing the border illegally and asking for asylum.
The volume of families at the border has led CBP, and the Border Patrol specifically, to a “breaking point,” according to Mr. McAleenan. Last month he grimly warned that the situation was so bad—facilities intended to house single adults for just a few hours were dangerously overcrowded—more migrants could die in government custody. Two Guatemalan children died after crossing the border with their fathers in December.
As acting secretary, Mr. McAleenan would face the same pressure to stem the flow of migrants as his predecessor. Both have argued for months that Congress needs to act to change Immigration laws to deter migrant families, mostly from Central America, from coming to the border to ask for asylum.
Through the end of February, more than 136,000 migrant families had crossed the border illegally since the start of the budget year in October.
Mr. McAleenan started his career with U.S. Customs, then part of the Treasury Department, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and helped the agency transform into Customs and Border Protection after the Department of Homeland Security was established. Before he joined government, Mr. McAleenan, 47, was a practicing lawyer in Southern California.
A graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, he was considering joining the FBI after developing an interest in the 1990s in what he saw as a growing threat of international terrorism striking the United States.
“I applied for the FBI on the night of Sept. 11, I wrote out my application and mailed it in on the 12th,” Mr. McAleenan told The Wall Street Journal in an interview last year. “I was looking for a challenge beyond litigating one company’s interest against another. 9/11 just made it impossible to wait.”
Mr. McAleenan has declined to discuss his personal politics. Campaign finance records show he contributed about $2,400 in four donations to then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008. Mr. McAleenan said Mr. Obama was an instructor of his at law school in Chicago.
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