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 Three days earlier, President Donald Trump rescinded his own nomination for the director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Ronald Vitiello.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)
Despite the U.S.-China trade deal signed last week, the two countries appear headed for more confrontation, especially over high science and technology.
One of China’s highest-profile tech executives, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, told the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos on Tuesday that he expects the U.S. to escalate its crackdown on Huawei. But he vowed that the world leader in building 5G networks is prepared to withstand further restrictions on its foreign markets and suppliers.
Analysts say his remarks suggest that the Chinese may be ready to directly confront Americans in the global competition for high-tech advancements, which are seen at the core of trade frictions.
Tech war is on
“He [Ren] is fully aware that the tech competition between the U.S. and China will escalate. The U.S. has no plan to cut China some slack simply because they have just signed the Phase 1 deal. Both are now entering the battleground of their tech disputes,” said Lin Tsung-nan, professor of electrical engineering at National Taiwan University in Taipei.
Beijing’s critics say Huawei acts as a virtual arm of the Chinese government, benefitting from favorable policies and funding that have sped its expansion around the world. They warn countries that allow Huawei to build their new wireless data networks that they are giving Beijing’s authoritarian government enormous influence over their security. Instead, U.S. officials argue, countries should trust American, European, Korean and other companies.
Provisions in the U.S.-China Phase 1 trade agreement aim to root out Chinese state policies that encourage intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers. However the deal leaves open questions about enforcement. Many, including Huawei chief Ren, remain skeptical that the countries will reach an agreement on such issues.
Speaking to the audience in Davos, Ren said he believes the United States will escalate its crackdown on Huawei, but that the impact will be minimal as the company has adapted to restrictions imposed since last year.
Huawei and its 46 affiliates were targeted in 2019 after the U.S. government concluded that the company has long engaged in activities contrary to U.S. national security. Ren’s daughter, Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, is fighting an extradition case in Canada stemming from allegations she committed fraud by lying about Huawei’s relationship with an affiliate doing business in Iran.
Huawei’s Plan B
Analysts have mixed views about the long-term impact of the blacklisting on Huawei. Ren said he is optimistic because Huawei has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in its own core technology over the past few years, including chips and software. Last year, the company released its own operating system, called HarmonyOS, though, so far, it hasn’t been installed in any of the company’s smartphones.
It has also released a flagship smartphone, the Mate 30, without licensed Google Android software. Sales in China have been in line with expectations, although its global sales target of 20 million units is yet to be met.
But Professor Lin said the ultimate challenge facing Huawei lies ahead.
“The real test will come after the U.S. completely cuts off [Huawei’s] access to American technology and relevant exchanges. Huawei will then have to prove if its products, manufactured based on its so-called plan B, will continue to be competitive in overseas markets,” the professor said.
More tech restrictions
After having restricted Huawei’s access to American technology, the United States is reportedly looking to introduce a stricter rule that could block Huawei’s access to an increased number of foreign-made goods.
Media reports said the United States plans, among other things, to force Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), the world’s largest contract chipmaker, to limit its supplies of 14 nanometer chips to Huawei.
Washington is also lobbying other countries, such as Britain and Germany, to bar Huawei — which it accuses of spying for the Chinese government — from the buildup of their next-generation mobile networks known as 5G.
Whether U.S. allies will be persuaded to block Huawei from building their 5G networks remains uncertain, but Lin said the stakes in the standoff are clear.
“If China succeeds in using Huawei to dominate [the global 5G network], the free world will gradually fall into China’s high-tech iron curtain. That’s why the U.S. has turned aggressive in blocking Huawei, which has strived after having had copied code from Cisco’s [router software] technology a decade ago,” Lin said.
Song Hong at the Institute of World Economics and Politics under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said he’s worried the U.S. may widen its target to include more Chinese tech firms.
But he said Beijing is adapting to the new reality by gradually cutting its dependence on the U.S. technology.
“China has greatly strengthened its tech capabilities. I think Huawei’s [Ren] speaks on behalf of most Chinese businesses. That is, if you try to block me, I have no choice but to work to find other solutions,” he said.
An executive from China’s tech sector, who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity, said he’s not worried that the U.S.-China tech war will escalate. But he said China should respond to U.S. concerns.
“The U.S. has made a great contribution [to the world’s tech development] and now come up with some requests. I find that reasonable, right? I think China, as a responsible country, should respect and communicate well [with the U.S.] on a reasonable basis,” he said.
Warning from Meng’s case
While tech executives look at how the long-term competition between the two countries will play out, the fate of Meng — the daughter of Huawei’s founder — will impact relations in the short term. Canada has begun week-long court hearings to determine whether to extradite Meng to the United States to stand trial on fraud charges linked to the alleged violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Meng, who was arrested in late 2018 in Canada, denies any wrongdoing.
Regardless of the outcome of the case, said Lin of National Taiwan University, the United States has succeeded in sending a warning to those who have harmed or plan to go against U.S. tech interests. (VOA)