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PTrump listens as then-FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor speaks on protecting seniors from COVID-19. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration is trying to cement immigration changes that face legal challenges by reissuing them through a new acting Homeland Security secretary imbued with authority courts have said his predecessors lacked.

Why it matters: Visa fee hikes, suspending the DACA program and other moves have been blocked because of a dispute over DHS's internal succession rules. While Trump is now trying a backdoor maneuver to protect some immigration actions, Joe Biden will have other ways to undo them.

The backstory: Multiple federal judges have found that former acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf was likely unlawfully appointed, causing agency policies pushed through during his watch to be invalidated.

  • The same applied to his predecessor, Kevin McAleenan. The Government Accountability Office and courts found he improperly became acting secretary following Kirstjen Nielsen's resignation in April 2019.
  • The rules that guide how DHS vacancies are supposed to be filled suggest the new acting secretary, Pete Gaynor, is now a legitimate appointee.
  • He served most recently as administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The end-around: Gaynor issued a memo Wednesday empowering Wolf, who remains DHS undersecretary for strategy, policy, and plans, to sign and ratify agency regulations.

  • Wolf then issued a memo ratifying rules published while he was acting secretary, as well as several immigration rules issued under McAleenan.

In a letter announcing his resignation, Wolf wrote "this action is warranted by recent events, including the ongoing and meritless court rulings regarding the validity of my authority as acting secretary."

  • That passage set off alarm bells with watchdog groups.
  • Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, asked in a tweet whether "Gaynor is going to come in and ratify all of Wolf's prior actions."
  • Courts have blocked fee hikes as well as wide-ranging, harsh restrictions on asylum, citing Wolf's likely invalid succession.

Flashback: In November, a federal judge said the outgoing administration's latest suspension of the so-called Dreamers program was invalid for the same reason.

Go deeper

Acting director of ICE resigns

ICE headquarters in Washington, D.C., in 2020. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Jonathan Fahey, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has resigned after leading the agency for two weeks, though it is unclear what prompted his departure, an ICE spokesperson confirmed to Axios Wednesday night.

Why it matters: Fahey's exit, first reported by Buzzfeed's Hamed Aleaziz, comes after the previous acting director, Tony Pham, abruptly left the post in December and amid a wider shakeup in the Department of Homeland Security.

Ina Fried, author of Login
1 hour ago - Technology

Scoop: Google is investigating the actions of another top AI ethicist

Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Photo by Mateusz Wlodarczyk/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Google is investigating recent actions by Margaret Mitchell, who helps lead the company's ethical AI team, Axios has confirmed.

Why it matters: The probe follows the forced exit of Timnit Gebru, a prominent researcher also on the AI ethics team at Google whose ouster ignited a firestorm among Google employees.

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Joe Biden's COVID-19 bubble

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The incoming administration is planning extraordinary steps to protect its most prized commodity, Joe Biden, including requiring daily employee COVID tests and N95 masks at all times, according to new guidance sent to some incoming employees Tuesday.

Why it matters: The president-elect is 78 years old and therefore a high risk for the virus and its worst effects, despite having received the vaccine. While President Trump's team was nonchalant about COVID protocols — leading to several super-spreader episodes — the new rules will apply to all White House aides in "high proximity to principals."