VOA News Center writer Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report from Washington.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who oversaw several contentious Trump administration immigration and border policies, will leave her post this week, opening up one of the most high-profile and influential positions in the president’s Cabinet.
The move appears to be part of broader leadership changes at several agencies within the DHS, following a string of departures in recent days.
On Monday, the White House said the head of the U.S. Secret Service (USSS) Randolph “Tex” Alles would step down. Three days earlier, President Donald Trump rescinded his own nomination for the director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Ronald Vitiello.
The New York Times reported Monday that the head of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), L. Francis Cissna, is also expected to step down soon, though neither the White House nor the agency has confirmed.
According to Trump, the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Kevin McAleenan — the country’s law enforcement agency at the border and at ports of entry — will temporarily take charge of DHS as acting secretary, which would mean a change in leadership at CBP as well.
Heading in a ‘tougher direction’
The top-down shake-up is said to be motivated by Trump’s interest in more restrictions regarding migration at the U.S.-Mexico border, and with immigration overall.
In rescinding Vitiello’s appointment last week, Trump said, “We want to go in a tougher direction” on immigration but did not elaborate.
Nielsen’s departure comes after publicly conflicting with the president late last month over U.S. relations with Central America, and amid media reports that Nielsen did not go far enough in pushing Trump’s restrictionist agenda at the southern U.S. border.
“Secretary Nielsen’s had a rocky tenure… from denying family separations were initially happening to having to justify the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. “This wasn’t altogether unexpected.”
With media reports that Trump wants to reinstate a policy of separating migrant children from their families at the border, the White House on Monday did not issue a flat-out denial of the allegation.
Hogan Gidley, White House deputy press secretary, told reporters: “The separation of families, you know, the president has said before he does not like that. It’s a horrible practice. But Congress has a way to fix that so that it will not be a magnet for people to come here and use children to do it.”
But migration is not triggered by one variable, such as congressional action, rather by several: conditions in migrants’ home countries, policies in the United States, economic variables, weather. And that list changes.
Neither Nielsen nor Trump, however, have publicly acknowledged that the administration’s policies may in fact be contributing to the increased number of border-crossers in recent months, as Dree K. Collopy, chair of the National Asylum and Refugee Liaison Committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, suggested in January.
Democrats welcome Nielsen resignation
News accounts say Nielsen had no intention of quitting when she arrived at the White House on Sunday to meet with Trump, but that he was determined to ask for her resignation, which she submitted shortly after the meeting.
White House sources have said Trump often yelled at Nielsen for apparently not being strong enough in curbing the number of migrants trying to enter the United States.
“It is deeply alarming that the Trump administration official who put children in cages is reportedly resigning because she is not extreme enough for the White House’s liking,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement following Nielsen’s announcement.
Chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, responded by summarizing Nielsen’s tenure at DHS as “championing President Trump’s cruel anti-immigrant agenda” and McAleenan’s appointment “deeply disturbing” given the CBP commissioner’s actions at the border.
Castro went on to say McAleenan “cannot be trusted… based on his record of prioritizing Trump’s harmful policies.”
But Nielsen’s removal and McAleenan’s temporary appointment are not a slam dunk on either side of the political spectrum. Noted immigration restrictionist Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies, tweeted that he is “not sure McAleenan would be an improvement over Nielsen.”
Trump has expressed frustration with the situation along the southern border, where hundreds of thousands of migrants trying to escape poverty and crime in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have traveled through Mexico in hopes of entering the United States. Under U.S. law, foreign nationals are allowed to apply for asylum.
Nielsen’s last day in office will be Wednesday, April 10.
The Nielsen legacy
Trump’s immigration policies created tumult at the border, in airports and in the court system. For the first year, former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly carried out those decisions.
His tenure largely focused on the first — and subsequent, controversial, and legally fraught — travel bans affecting international travelers and families with relatives abroad. The first successful attempt to cut refugee arrivals also happened under Kelly. Two of the three primary agencies tasked with refugee admissions are within the Department of Homeland Security.
When Nielsen succeeded Kelly in December 2017, she led a shift toward more domestic-oriented policies, namely on the U.S.-Mexico border. McAleenan not only has led an agency that focuses on the domestic aspects of immigration, but who also has experience in law enforcement.
O’Mara Vignarajah, head of LIRS, said that may reinforce Trump’s interest in clamping down on asylum-seekers.
“We cannot effectively employ a law enforcement answer to what is a humanitarian problem,” O’Mara Vignarajah said. “We just hope that Nielsen’s departure doesn’t allow for new leadership to be put in place doubling down on policies to turn away vulnerable women and children.” (VOA)
On the surface, it may look as though the average U.S. media consumer is awash in choices: websites, podcasts, cable and broadcast TV, satellite and over-the-air radio, and yes, even printed newspapers. But the reality is different.
There is an oft-quoted line from Thomas Jefferson about the importance of a free press to the stability of the newly formed United States: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government,” he wrote to a colleague, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Almost always, though, the words Jefferson wrote next are forgotten. He added, “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”
His insight was that a press free from government interference is a necessary condition for a healthy democracy, but not a sufficient one. A free press isn’t very useful if nobody has access to relevant reporting on the issues that affect them.
If Jefferson were able to look at the media landscape in his country today, particularly at the local level, he would almost certainly be worried.
News sources, particularly local ones, are increasingly controlled by a limited number of companies that have bought up smaller news organizations and consolidated them.
This is perhaps most visible in the world of newspapers. Twenty percent of the newspapers that were active 15 years ago have been shut down, according to the University of North Carolina, leaving hundreds of locales without a local paper.
Employment in newspaper newsrooms has fallen by 47% since 2004, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, companies like GateHouse Media and Gannett control hundreds of publications using centralized news gathering that decreases the focus on their communities.
In August, the two companies announced a plan to merge, a deal that would create a company controlling more than 250 daily newspapers, as well as hundreds more weeklies and community papers. The merged companies would be several times larger than the next biggest newspaper company, Digital First Media, which in 2018 owned 51 daily papers and 158 other publications.
Digital First, which is owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, has been at the forefront of another troubling trend: buying up newspapers, laying off newsroom staff, and liquidating the papers’ real estate assets.
Digital First, which also goes by MediaNews Group, or MNG, did not respond to a request for comment from VOA. However, in response to a Washington Post story earlier this year, the company said “MNG is committed to the newspaper business and a long-term investor in the space. MNG’s focus is on getting publications to a place where they can operate profitably and sustainably and continue to serve their communities.”
Job cuts, quick profits
“They’re owned, essentially, by private equity companies, or even hedge funds at times, and they don’t particularly care about the quality of the journalism,” said Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post and former public editor of The New York Times.
“What they’re there to do is to strip mine these properties and get as much profit from them as they can in the short term. And that is very bad for journalism. It’s very bad for journalists, because it often means round after round of job reductions, cutting costs in really draconian ways that hurt the news gathering process.”
Newspapers are not typically seen as a major profit-making venture. While they generate significant cash flow through advertising sales, that is offset by high production costs of personnel and the logistics of printing and delivery. Many are run by family foundations and other organizations that place some value on their public mission.
The strategy of many investment firms buying up newspaper chains has been to increase profits by slashing personnel costs.
In the broadcast world, the story is similar. Large companies have been buying up local stations and cutting costs by centralizing the production of much of the content they air. Most notorious among them is Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 193 stations across the country, reaching up to 40% of the U.S. population.
Sinclair is known for enforcing a sharply conservative political slant on its broadcasts, providing “must-run” content that appears on every station the company owns. It regularly requires its stations to air commentary by Boris Epshteyn, a friend of President Donald Trump’s family and a former political consultant to the president.
Last year, a video went viral in which dozens of Sinclair anchors could be seen repeating, verbatim, a script that echoed Trump’s complaints about “fake news.”
Rules that formerly limited the ability of individual companies to own a dominant share of the media outlets in a specific market have been slowly eased over the years. Then, in 2017, the Federal Communications Commission gutted many of the remaining restrictions, opening the door to single companies dominating individual markets in both broadcast and print.
The resulting consolidation has been “disastrous for local communities,” said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, an organization that advocates for the decentralization of media. “We’ve gone from a more diverse localized media system to one increasingly controlled by a small handful of companies.”
“You used to get in your car in New York and drive to, I don’t know, Phoenix,” said Aaron. “Everywhere along the way, you would get incredibly different local voices, local flavors, local music. Now, you’re much more likely to get the same hit songs and Rush Limbaugh. So, we’ve lost some of that, you know, which I think has huge cultural value.”
The impact goes beyond culture, though, as Aaron and others have pointed out. It also has a direct impact on how Americans govern themselves.
“When sources of local and regional news dry up or go away,” Sullivan said, “there’s research that shows that the way people engage politically changes. They are going to be less likely to vote, they become more polarized, because for many years, the local newspaper might have been a way that people in that community were sharing a set of facts. Now, that’s gone or diminished.”
Last year, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard Universityassembled a list of academic studies that tied the loss of local news sources to a decline in both the quantity and quality of citizens’ civic engagement.
Social media news
To fill the gap, Sullivan said, people turn to less objective sources of news, like Facebook, or politically partisan cable television programming.
“It is really a very damaging thing for the way we talk to each other, the way we feel as a community and the way we deal with politics,” Sullivan said.
Identifying the disease and cataloging the symptoms is one thing. But finding a cure that will return the U.S. to a more Jeffersonian media model won’t be easy.
Sullivan argued that the growth of nonprofit news organizations is a hopeful sign that an alternative to corporatized media may be available. Groups such as Report for America provide funding so that young journali