The Anti-Immigrant Extremists in Charge of the U.S. Immigration System

Ken Cuccinelli,
former Virginia attorney general, does a TV interview before a congressional subcommittee hearing on gun control, January 2015.

The anti-immigrant movement has increasingly gained influence over the past decade, reaching a high point during the Trump administration. Top administrative positions in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have been filled by right-wing extremists, many with close ties to hate groups. As a result, anti-immigrant policies that used to be regarded as extreme have been normalized, and dehumanizing rhetoric toward immigrants has become rampant in mainstream media.

The new wave of anti-immigrant extremists leading DHS is responsible for overseeing the nation’s entire immigration system, from adjudicating visa petitions and applications for citizenship and asylum to handling arrests and deportations. These extremists have also played a role in, or defended, policies that outrage many Americans, such as family separation, the increased use of ICE raids, and the disparagement of locations that have sanctuary policies.

Here are some of the people now in charge of immigration policy at DHS.

Thomas Homan

President Donald Trump recently announced his strong intentions to name Thomas Homan as the White House “border czar.” As former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homan hired Jon Feere, a former analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS)—an organization that has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. CIS earned this designation after repeatedly circulating white nationalist and anti-Semitic content in its weekly newsletter and publishing reports that aiming to criminalize immigrant communities.

Homan also accepted an invitation to speak at an event hosted by CIS in June 2018. At the time, former Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) urged Homan to cancel his plans to meet with the group and sent him a letter that stated, “It is highly inappropriate for a senior official of a federal agency to engage with a group that spreads such abhorrent viewpoints, including white supremacism and anti-Semitism.” Homan proceeded with his plan to attend and was met by a group of protesters outside the event.

Homan also played a key role in family separations. He sent a memo to former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen that included recommendations on how to operationalize the policy; the memo stated that DHS could “permissibly direct the separation of parents or legal guardians and minors held in immigration detention so that the parent or legal guardian can be prosecuted.” Thousands of children were separated from their parents, and an untold number remain separated today.

Additionally, Homan has been known to issue public anti-immigrant remarks. In 2017, Homan told Congress that every undocumented immigrant “should look over [their] shoulder” because the agency “shouldn’t wait for them to become a criminal.” Homan’s legacy at ICE also includes disparagement of sanctuary cities and nearly tripling the number of noncriminal arrests of undocumented immigrants, leading to more families being ripped apart across the country.

Ken Cuccinelli

Earlier this month, Ken Cuccinelli was named the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Cuccinelli was one of the founders of the nativist group State Legislators for Legal Immigration (SLLI). The mission of the group was to eliminate “all economic attractions and incentives (including, but not limited to: public benefits, welfare, education and employment opportunities) for illegal aliens, as well as securing our borders against unlawful invasion.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the SLLI has also been described as the legislative arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an organization described as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, based on the group’s close ties to white supremacists.

For many years, first as a public official and later as a private citizen, Cuccinelli has espoused and promoted anti-immigrant views and policies. As a Republican state senator in Virginia, Cuccinelli introduced legislation that would have allowed an employer to fire an employee ineligible for unemployment benefits. Additionally, Cuccinelli led an effort as a state senator to call a constitutional convention to overturn the 14th Amendment’s birthright citizenship clause for the children of undocumented immigrants. Given Cuccinelli’s anti-immigrant ideology and restrictive views on citizenship, placing him in charge of the agency responsible for adjudicating naturalization applications risks undermining core constitutional protections.

As Virginia attorney general, Cuccinelli famously compared immigrants to pests during a radio interview:

[T]he D.C. City Council passed a new law, or a triumph of animal rights over human health, where those pest control people … aren’t allowed to kill the rats. … Anyway, it is worse than our immigration policy—you can’t break up families. Or raccoons or all the rest and you can’t even kill them. Unbelievable.

At a time when thousands of families have been ripped apart by DHS personnel—and as more continue to be separated at the border—Cuccinelli’s past use of dehumanizing language and his vigorous support for breaking up immigrant families should be red flags.

Julie Kirchner

Prior to becoming the current ombudsman for the USCIS, Julie Kirchner was adviser to Customs and Border Protection (CBP). In that position, Kirchner helped draft the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, a punitive bill that aimed to slash legal immigration in half by limiting the possibility of family reunification, cutting refugee admissions in half, and eliminating the diversity visa program.

Before entering government, Kirchner was the longtime executive director for FAIR, an organization founded by John Tanton, a staunch supporter of dangerous anti-immigrant ideologies grounded in eugenics and population control. Tanton is known in the anti-immigrant movement for writing “The Case for Passive Eugenics,” in which he promoted a passive form of eugenics and the practice of restricting childbearing to between ages 20 and 35. As previously mentioned, the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated FAIR as a hate group.

Under Kirchner’s leadership, FAIR lobbied extensively in support of bills such as the Security and Fairness Enhancement for America (SAFE America) Act, which would have ended the diversity visa program. After the pro-immigrant marches that took place in March 2006, Kirchner wrote the following for FAIR’s newsletter:

The sight of millions of illegal immigrants and U.S.-born citizen children marching under Mexican flags and asserting their identities as something other than American is very troubling and should be seen as a wake-up call to the political leadership of this country. The United States could well face a situation similar to what has been taking place in France and other parts of Europe, where the children of the last generation of immigrants not only do not identify with the societies in which they live, but are openly hostile to them.

Kirchner’s anti-immigrant views and past leadership role at FAIR have been regarded as a victory for anti-immigrant extremists.

Mark Morgan

In May, President Trump appointed Mark Morgan as the new acting director of ICE. In his role, Morgan has appeared regularly on Fox News. In one appearance, he attempted to defend the use of child incarceration, saying, “They’re not cages. They’re actually really nice facilities. And there are chain-link fence within the facilities, but it’s designed so the Border Patrol agents working there can provide safety and security for the people that are there.” However, journalists have called the facilities cages; for example, the Associated Press has written, “Inside an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of children wait in a series of cages created by metal fencing. One cage had 20 children inside. Scattered about are bottles of water, bags of chips and large foil sheets intended to serve as blankets.”

Experts at the American Psychological Association warned President Trump that “separat[ing] children from their parents inflicts further trauma. This is cruel to children and hugely disruptive to their sense of safety and well-being.”

Morgan has also given credibility to militia groups that have detained hundreds of asylum seekers at gunpoint, saying in an interview:

Citizens should not be arming themselves … and carrying out law enforcement duties. This is bad thing for everybody. But let’s peel that back. Why are they doing it? Because they’re there and they see what the rest of us are seeing, that the southwest border is being overrun. Border Patrol and other law enforcement entities there are overwhelmed and they feel like they have no choice.

Under Morgan’s leadership, ICE prepared a series of now-postponed raids targeting more than 2,000 people. During one of the many interviews that Morgan has given on the massive operation, he said, “This is not about fear … No one is instilling fear in anyone. This is about the rule of law and maintaining the integrity of the system.”

Yet although Morgan claims that he is not instilling fear, immigrants can certainly interpret as a threat the possibility of 2,000 families being ripped apart indefinitely.

Conclusion

Anti-immigrant extremists in the United States have sought to influence the immigration debate for decades, and under the Trump administration, they have gained more influence than ever. Through positions at DHS, these extremists have normalized policies and ideologies rooted in bigotry; this only makes it harder to promote reasonable solutions. Dehumanization of immigrants goes beyond party politics. Until these ideas are rejected and those promoting them are removed from positions of power, the integrity of the U.S. immigration system will remain in jeopardy.

Jessica Cobian is the senior campaign manager for Anti-Hate and Immigration at the Center for American Progress.

The author thanks Philip E. Wolgin and Tom Jawetz of the Center for American Progress for their valuable feedback.