Read: Kirstjen Nielsen shows it’s impossible to restrain Trump
But if the causes are unclear, the likely consequences are not. All of these moves underscore Trump’s vision of DHS as an immigration-focused organization. But DHS has a sweeping remit—including not only border and immigration agencies, but also FEMA, the Secret Service, TSA, and the Coast Guard—and neglecting its other important responsibilities to focus solely on immigration entails a major risk to the country.
The danger of treating DHS as a single-issue agency was dramatically illustrated during the George W. Bush administration, when an excessive focus on its counterterror role helped produce the federal government’s botched handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Trump has long made clear that immigration is a top priority, from his 2016 campaign to the government shutdown he forced in December, and his recent moves show how that applies to DHS. For example, Trump announced that he was elevating Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, to replace Nielsen on an acting basis. It’s not clear that Trump had thought through the implications—under the law, Nielsen should have been succeeded by Grady. So the White House scrambled to fix the mess the president had created, delaying Nielsen’s formal departure for long enough to first fire Grady, in order to clear the way for McAleenan. Trump’s eagerness to elevate a border-focused official over a defense-focused one shows where his priorities are.
On Tuesday, Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which has influenced the administration’s approach, argued on NPR’s Morning Edition that Nielsen was unfit to lead the department because her background is not in immigration.
“This job was not for her. She was in over her head,” Krikorian said. “She’s a cybersecurity person, and that she knows. And DHS does deal with issues like that. But the most pressing issues that DHS has been dealing with are obviously immigration-related issues, and she did not appreciate the urgency of this.”
But that’s begging the question. Trump certainly believes that the most pressing issues for DHS are immigration-related, but the department deals with a range of other issues—including natural disasters, terrorism prevention, and cybersecurity—that are inarguably important to the nation.
When DHS was hastily established after the September 11 attacks, it swallowed up a variety of agencies and functions from across the government. But the department was largely focused on preventing terrorism, and especially Islamist terrorism. In a way, that worked: There were no major Islamist terrorist attacks on American soil in the years that followed. But Hurricane Katrina showed the dangers of this single-minded focus. Departments that were not central to the core terrorism focus became marginalized and forgotten, and the federal government’s handling of the hurricane was a man-made disaster.