The departure of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is clearly all about immigration. Her views are apparently in tension with the president’s on some key border-enforcement questions, such questions are particularly important to this president, and a president should have a cabinet that advances his priorities. It’s perfectly reasonable to dismiss a cabinet official who doesn’t do that, even if dismissing people in a dignified and orderly way turns out to be yet another facet of administration this president just isn’t very good at.
But the discussion of Nielsen’s dismissal, and of prospects for her replacement, is so intensely focused on immigration that it risks distorting our understanding of what the Department of Homeland Security does and so of what its next leader will need to be able to do.
DHS was created in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, and it amounts to a peculiar sort of hodgepodge of agencies that had previously been located elsewhere in the bureaucracy. It’s about a $40 billion department that employs almost a quarter of a million people, and most of them don’t work on immigration issues. DHS is charged with protecting the country from terrorism, preparing for and responding to emergencies of all sorts, coordinating the federal government’s cyber-security efforts, and assisting state and local law-enforcement in countless ways. The department is home to the three immigration services (Customs and Border Protection, Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement) but it is also home to the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Protective Service, and more.
In considering possible replacements for Nielsen, the president and his advisers should keep in mind that the Secretary of DHS is not a kind of minister of immigration. The person in charge of that department needs to have some background or capacity for the much broader set of challenges involved in the job, and maybe in particular some experience keeping cool in an emergency. The sort of work DHS is called on to perform in a crisis involves quick and enormously important decisions about resource allocation, prioritizing and triage, and threat assessment—all of which can be excruciatingly difficult in the midst of terrible pressure and fear, and can involve very high stakes. Serious, unexpected emergencies are when the personal qualities of the DHS secretary truly become important.
Nielsen’s own background was well suited to these broader challenges. She was the official in charge of “prevention, preparedness, and response” in the Homeland Security Council in the Bush White House and then a senior official at the TSA. After that, she worked on cyber security issues outside of government and then was John Kelly’s chief of staff when he was Trump’s first Homeland Security secretary. In other words, her background wasn’t in immigration but in the other facets of the department’s portfolio. But coverage of her potential successors has so far focused very much on immigration.
The White House should certainly make sure that the right people are in place in the leadership of DHS’s three immigration-related agencies, and that they’re well supported in the counsel’s office and on the secretary’s staff to advance the president’s priorities. But because of the breadth of the department’s responsibilities, the dangerous shortage of appointed senior leaders (at this point the department lacks a Senate-confirmed secretary, deputy secretary, FEMA director, Secret Service director, ICE director, and directors of the science and technology office and policy office), and because the president and his senior advisers are so focused on immigration themselves, the Secretary of DHS doesn’t need to be an immigration expert but does need to be someone capable of leading a massive security agency. That means being capable of exercising judgment over some challenging preparedness and intelligence decisions and (especially) keeping a cool head in a crisis and leading emergency-response efforts in a steady and decisive way. Only long experience can produce such people, and the next DHS secretary ought to have such experience. Failure to consider the most important demands of the job would become painfully evident at the worst possible time. It would sure be better to think of it now.