Trump Wants a ‘Tougher’ ICE Director. What Does That Mean?

White House senior adviser Stephen Miller is reportedly calling most of the plays on immigration. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Friday, the president announced that he was withdrawing the nomination of the acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a move so unexpected that one Department of Homeland Security official reportedly thought it was a “paperwork error.” Without much explanation, Trump told reporters that he had ditched Ron Vitiello as his candidate for permanent ICE director, saying that “Ron’s a good man, but we’re going in a tougher direction.”

ICE is already known as the agency that deports tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants who are parents of children with American citizenship. In a particularly cruel separation from November 2017, ICE split a Congolese mother from her daughter and flew the child 2,000 miles to a center for “unaccompanied” minors, holding her there with limited contact with her mother for four months. Between 2012 and March 2018, there were 1,224 reports of sexual abuse filed by detainees in ICE custody; half of those accused worked for the agency. If such treatment is the agency’s response to undocumented immigrants living mostly without incident in the United States, how much “tougher” does the president intend to get?

As Vox immigration reporter Dara Lind notes, this may not be one of the president’s more politically thought-out staffing moves:

It’s … doubtful that whoever Trump might nominate in lieu of Vitiello would be confirmed by the Senate. Democrats are increasingly unwilling to endorse any aspect of federal immigration enforcement as run by Trump, and some Republicans remain leery of Trump immigration-hawk favorites like former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.


When Vitiello was nominated, he was seen as the only confirmable candidate for the position; he was a career law enforcement officer who’d come from a leadership position at CBP. That, apparently, is no longer tough enough for Trump. Who could pass that bar, whether the Senate will fall in line, and what a “tougher direction” might look like in practice remain to be seen.

According to the New York Times, Trump believed that a possible reason for the move was that Vitiello did not favor closing the border, a move the president considered last week before rescinding the threat. (Perhaps Trump forgot that ICE does not actively patrol the border, but is responsible for deporting undocumented Americans within the interior.) Another reported reason was that Stephen Miller — the White House chief policy adviser, and by far the administration’s most hawkish voice on immigration — didn’t think Vitiello was up to the task. “Stephen would like to put Atilla the Hun at ICE,” one candid White House official told the Post.

The weekend at the Department of Homeland Security, which houses ICE, only got rockier on Sunday when Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned after meeting with the President. Nielsen is considered by Vox’s Dara Lind to be the “most aggressive” DHS Secretary since the agency was founded in 2002: “To Trump’s critics, Nielsen will likely be remembered for presiding over the widespread separation of children from their parents at the US/Mexico border in late spring and early summer 2018, under a ‘zero tolerance’ policy of prosecuting first-time border crossers for illegal entry.” Nielsen also moved to limit the number of migrants that would be able to apply for asylum legally.

The weekend was a good one for Stephen Miller at least: The senior adviser is also a noted critic of Nielsen, and has reportedly been lobbying the president to shake things up at ICE and DHS. According to the Washington Post, the president recently told Miller he would “be in charge of handling all immigration and border affairs.” It’s unfortunate news for those who hope for humane border security and immigration policies, as Miller is known to be an echo chamber for the Trump’s most base ideas on those issues. (Among his recent ideas, on Saturday the president called the U.S. asylum program “a scam” and said that Central American migrants are “Some of the roughest people you have ever seen. People that look like they should be fighting for the UFC.”)

If Trump wants ICE, and presumably the Department of Homeland Security, to get “tougher,” having Miller in charge by proxy is a strong bet. However, it’s unclear if the move will result in anything other than the further dehumanization of migrants coming into the country: Miller reportedly supported the president’s call to shut down the border, a move that would effectively be economic suicide. Nor is Miller likely to face any backlash if his policies fail: according to an administration official who spoke to the Post, he is also “particularly adept” at blaming others when his ideas don’t work.

Trump Wants a ‘Tougher’ ICE Director. What Does That Mean?