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Is Trump About To Get Even More Conservative On Immigration?

President Trump appears to be moving even further to the right on immigration policy. His administration has always taken hardline stances on immigration, of course, but recent rhetoric and staffing moves may signal a further shift.

The latest such sign came on Sunday when Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen “resigned.” She appears to have stepped down at Trump’s behest after reportedly not being on board with recent immigration policy steps and rhetoric from the president. Those moves were all in a decidedly conservative direction:

  1. The president publicly floated the idea of “closing the border,” which in practical terms means shutting down all ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border.1
  2. His administration is planning to cut U.S. aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, arguing that those three nations are not doing enough to stop their residents from trying to immigrate to the U.S.
  3. Trump withdrew his nomination of Ronald Vitiello to run the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, saying that he wants someone “tougher.”
  4. The president is reportedly pushing for policies that would result in migrant children being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, a policy he abandoned last year after a strong public backlash.
  5. Other senior officials at the Homeland Security Department are reportedly on their way out at the behest of longtime Trump aide Stephen Miller, who is known for his conservative views on immigration.

The rift between Trump and Nielsen is telling because Nielsen is hardly a dove on immigration policy. This is not like when Jim Mattis quit his job as defense secretary in December. Mattis had long disagreed with Trump on a wide swath of foreign policy issues — specifically, Mattis favored a more traditional, establishment foreign policy.

In contrast, Nielsen seemed fairly on board with the general tenor of Trump’s anti-immigration agenda. Remember that Nielsen was perhaps the most prominent defender last year of the policies that were resulting in children being separated from their parents at the border. Child separation was very, very unpopular, but Nielsen didn’t step down amid that firestorm.2 That Nielsen has now been deemed insufficiently conservative on immigration by the president — and that Nielsen may have felt that she could not align herself with Trump’s latest policy moves — is surprising.

I don’t want to overstate the importance of Nielsen’s departure. Trump’s administration is constantly reshuffling staffers while its broader ideology remains in place. Trump was conservative on immigration before Nielsen became homeland security secretary in December 2017, and he will almost certainly remain so without her. Arguably the person with the most influence on Trump’s immigration policy is Miller, who unlike Nielsen worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign and came up with much of the immigration agenda that Trump has implemented as president. And Miller probably isn’t going anywhere.

But Nielsen’s departure could be a signal that Trump is moving in an even more aggressive direction on immigration. Shutting down the ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border would be an extremely bold step, so much so that some Republican senators are pushing Trump not to do it.

Why might Trump be headed in this direction now? His decision to force Nielsen out is reportedly about the migrant families that are leaving Central America and trying to enter the U.S. at rates not seen since at least 2014. This surge matters for two reasons.

First, there is reason to think that the U.S. government needs to reconsider its immigration policies. Jeh Johnson, who ran the Homeland Security Department under Obama, has said that the number of immigrant families trying to enter the U.S. right now is at a “crisis” level, echoing language that the Trump administration has used.3 So I think that any president, faced with this surge of migrants, might be taking steps to change their immigration policies and perhaps the staffers in charge of them.

Secondly, Miller and Trump may see the migrant issue as an opportunity — in effect, providing them a cover for pushing more aggressively anti-immigration ideas that they had always supported but will seem more justified now. Those ideas might have been a step too far for Nielsen. So she’s out — and I suspect an even more restrictionist immigration agenda will be in.

From ABC News:

Homeland Security purge continues with removal of Secret Service chief


  1. Privately, he reportedly pushed Nielsen and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to start closing some ports of entry but was later talked out of the idea.

  2. Although it does appear that she was reluctant to implement and defend child separation a second time.

  3. I doubt that Johnson would favor Trump’s solutions, like closing the border.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.