Nov 4, 2019 - Politics & Policy

Agency securing nation's borders struggles with permanent leadership

An illustration of the Department of Homeland Security emblem with a "Help Wanted" sign hanging from it.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A quarter of the leadership positions on the Department of Homeland Security's website are "acting" or vacant.

Why it matters: President Trump has signaled that senior DHS official Chad Wolf will be named to replace acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan. But throughout the agency, there have been hiring difficulties, vacant positions and temporary officials.

  • The biggest reasons: A strong economy makes it easy to find other jobs. Politicization makes it harder for nominees to be confirmed by the Senate. And the difficulties dealing with the border crisis along with the White House’s singular focus on immigration has had an impact as well, according to former DHS officials.
  • "[T]he WH’s constant mismanagement of the interagency policy making process is also a factor. Agency leaders never feel like they have command," a former administration official messaged.

The big picture: Trump focuses on DHS' role in immigration enforcement and policymaking. But the department was created with a broader mandate in response to 9/11. Its agencies fight terrorism, defend from cyberattacks, secure airports, enforce trade policy, physically protect public leaders and provide aid after natural disasters.

  • 19 of 75 senior leadership positions are acting or vacant, according to the DHS website's last update on Oct. 30. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman Julie Kirchner also recently offered her resignation.
  • There are vacancies for deputy secretary, undersecretary for science and technology, and director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Office of the General Counsel are all led by acting leaders.
  • A lack of leadership only allows agencies to do the "status quo" and prevents big decisions from being made, said Ur Jaddou, former chief counsel to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Jaddou directs a project called DHS Watch run by America's Voice, a group that advocates a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
  • Given new turbulence in the Middle East and Russia's past election interference, "[o]ur nation cannot afford a continued string of temporary, acting secretaries," Jeh Johnson, who served as DHS secretary under Barack Obama, wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

Turnover happens in any administration, and some DHS subagencies have long struggled with hiring. But several former officials agreed — this isn't normal.

  • "Despite the Senate failing to confirm our nominees, all senior leadership positions have been filled on a permanent or acting capacity, and the Department continues to fulfill its mission to secure the homeland," a DHS spokesperson told Axios.

Behind the scenes: Jaddou said some take leadership roles at DHS "thinking they are ideologically capable of doing so," but "quickly find they are out of step" with Trump and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller.

  • Trump has publicly said he prefers acting secretaries, who don't have to go through Senate scrutiny, because it gives him "more flexibility."

The personnel problem isn't just at the top. Subagencies such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have long had hiring issues due to low pay, a tight labor force and, for border patrol, the need to work in remote areas of the country.

  • With politicization under Trump, "it may be getting harder," a former DHS official said. ICE and CBP agents "get demonized from everyone. I’m sure that’s taking a toll."

The impact:

  • ICE and CBP have struggled to maintain their agent numbers, much less fulfill Trump's 2017 executive order calling for 15,000 more agents.
  • CBP had to cancel a recruitment contract earlier this year because of the small number of applicants due to the "political and economic environment," a DHS official said in April.
  • One-fifth of new hires for the TSA screener position quit within six months, GovExec reports, costing the government millions of dollars spent on training and hiring. A TSA spokesperson told Axios the 17.6% of all TSA officers left the agency in FY 2019.
  • FEMA has struggled with misconduct charges. Two officials overseeing restoration after the hurricane in Puerto Rico were charged with fraud and bribery.
  • Jeffrey Byard's nomination to run FEMA was withdrawn, reportedly because of a bar fight.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that President Trump nominated a new head of FEMA after Byard’s nomination was withdrawn. It has also been updated after GovExec corrected their TSA screener resignation data.

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