President Donald Trump said Friday he was pulling the nomination of his pick to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, saying he wants to go in a "tougher direction."
The move, which The Associated Press first reported Thursday, was met with shock and confusion by many at the Homeland Security Department, where key officials had received no heads-up from the White House about its plans regarding Ron Vitiello, the agency's acting director. He had been scheduled to travel with Trump on Friday to Calexico, California, along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Even some of his aides thought Vitiello was still going to the border town even after the paperwork withdrawing his nomination to permanently lead the agency was sent to members of Congress on Thursday.
The surprise decision comes as the Trump administration struggles to deal with an influx of Central American migrants, which has led to a 12-year high in U.S.-Mexico border crossings, straining the U.S. immigration system. Trump last week threaten to close the border entirely to cope with the flow, before backing off this week.
It remains unclear exactly what was behind the Vitiello decision. Trump told reporters Friday as he departed the White House that Vitiello is a "good man," but that "we're going in a little different direction" and "want to go in a tougher direction." Trump did not explain what that meant and did not say who he had in mind as a replacement.
On Thursday night, Homeland Security officials were confused by word that Vitiello's nomination was in danger, with one insisting it was nothing but a paperwork error that had already been corrected.
But other, higher-level officials said the move did not appear to be a mistake, even though they were not informed ahead of time. The people had direct knowledge of the letter but were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The director's job requires Senate confirmation. Vitiello had cleared one committee; a second committee was in the process of considering his nomination. Vitiello has been acting head since last June of the agency that enforces U.S. immigration law in the interior of the United States. He has spent more than 30 years in law enforcement, starting in 1985 with the U.S. Border Patrol. He was previously Border Patrol chief and deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the patrol.
Vitiello took over during a time of heightened scrutiny of the agency. Part of its mission is to arrest immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, and that has made the agency a symbol of Trump's hard-line policies and target for Democrats.
Trump has been railing anew against increasing border crossings, as well as the release of thousands of migrants into the U.S. because of a lack of space to hold them, a move he derides as "catch and release."
It's a battle cry on a signature issue for the president, who wants to restrict immigration but whose policies have largely failed to do so.
For many years, families arriving at the border were typically released from U.S. custody immediately and allowed to settle with family or friends in the U.S. while their immigration cases wound their way through the courts, a process that often takes years.
But in recent months, the number of families crossing into the U.S. has climbed to record highs, pushing the system to the breaking point. As a result, ICE was releasing families faster, in greater numbers and farther from the border. Since Dec. 21, the agency has set free more than 125,000 people who came into the U.S. as families.
Trump on Friday was to tour a recently built portion of rebuilt fencing that he is holding up as the answer to stop a surge of migrant families coming to the U.S. in recent months.
Though the 2-mile section is only a long-planned replacement for an older barrier, the White House says it's the first section of his proposed border wall to be built. It's commemorated with a plaque bearing Trump's name and those of top immigration and homeland security officials — but not Vitiello's.
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