President Donald Trump said last month that he wanted to go in a “tougher direction” with the agency tasked with carrying out his immigration policies. That’s when he announced that he withdrawing the nomination of Ronald Vitiello to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, without naming an apparent substitute.
The president followed through Sunday, nominating Mark Morgan for ICE chief. The former U.S. Border Patrol head has been an outspoken supporter of a border wall and Trump’s broader immigration agenda.
If confirmed, Morgan would be in charge of any agency at the center of the debate over family separation, enforcement raids, and other aspects of the Trump administration’s efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.
“It’s a difficult time, and it’s a very difficult job,” said Julie Myers Wood, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, a position that morphed into the ICE director in 2009. “To carry out the mission faithfully, to be effective in terms of what the White House thinks and be confirmed [by the Senate], that’s a challenge.”
A former Marine, Morgan entered law enforcement in 1995 as a Los Angeles police officer. He became an FBI special agent a year later.
During his time at the FBI office in Los Angeles, he supervised a task force that focused on the gang MS-13 gang, which originated in Los Angeles among Salvadoran immigrants. Trump has frequently singled out the group, calling its members “monsters” and “animals.”
In 2014, Morgan, while still at the FBI, joined Customs and Border Protection in a temporary capacity as the acting assistant commissioner for internal affairs.
In 2016, he was tapped to head U.S. Border Patrol, another agency under the Department of Homeland Security. At the time, FBI Director James Comey praised Morgan’s “outstanding investigative work and leadership.”
Morgan left Border Patrol less than a year later, when the Trump administration asked him to resign.
No official reason for the resignation was given, but the National Border Patrol Council, which had a close relationship with Trump, was publicly critical of Morgan.
Morgan had been the first outsider appointed to lead the Border Patrol, a decision that upset many in the agency.
Support for Trump
After leaving the post, Morgan has regularly appeared on cable news programs, often praising Trump and his immigration policies.
“I agree 100 percent with what the president is trying to do with all things border security,” he told Fox News in one appearance earlier this year.
Morgan told CNN that Trump “had no choice” but to declare a national emergency in February in an attempt to fund a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The declaration came after Congress reached a deal to end the federal government shutdown that included $1.3 billion for barriers along the border — far less than the figure Trump had requested.
Morgan’s TV savvy quickly won the president’s favor.
“Mark Morgan, Former Border Patrol Chief with great experience in Law Enforcement, really understands the subjects of Immigration and the Border,” Trump tweeted in March after Morgan appeared on Fox and Friends.
Mark Morgan, Former Border Patrol Chief with great experience in Law Enforcement, really understands the subjects of Immigration and the Border. Thank you Mark! @foxandfriends
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 16, 2019
What Morgan may face
If the Senate approves his nomination, the question for Morgan will be whether he can stay in the president’s good graces.
Vitiello’s departure as the acting director at ICE — and the withdrawal of his nomination to head the agency permanently — came as part of a larger shake-up at the Department of Homeland Security, which included the firing of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. It is unclear exactly what led to Trump withdrawing Vitiello’s nomination and removing him as acting ICE director, but the shift came as Trump was proposing that ICE transport and release immigrants in sanctuary cities.
“Now Morgan comes in, and he’s under tremendous pressure to placate the White House,” said John Sandweg, who served as ICE director during the Obama administration.
While presidents have always had a hand in establishing immigration policy, former ICE heads said the current White House is more involved in the details of the agency’s operation than previous administrations.
Trump’s tendency to tweet out ideas without running them through traditional channels, as well as efforts by White House advisers like immigration hardliner Stephen Miller to have a hand in the minutiae of immigration policy, can make it difficult for officials to implement effective strategies.
Still, under Trump, ICE has enjoyed strong support from the White House, even as some Democrats in Congress — and some 2020 presidential candidates — have called for the agency to be abolished altogether.
Former Homeland Security officials said Morgan’s experience at the FBI prepared him to be an effective leader at ICE, an agency with 6,000 special agents who deal with cross-border crime.
“He certainly has the professionalism and the knowledge to manage and to lead an organization” like ICE, said Gil Kerlikowske, a former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection who hired Morgan at Border Patrol.
But Morgan’s experience specifically with immigration policy is much more limited, given his short tenure with the Border Patrol.
And despite his repeated support for a border wall, Morgan would not have much say as ICE director in how a border barrier would be built or maintained. Instead, he would be tasked with managing the detention and removal of immigrants who enter the country illegally.
Tens of thousands of migrants are crossing the border each month and many of them are women and children, straining facilities that were largely designed to hold single, adult males.
Under Bush and Obama there was more bipartisan consensus on immigration and border security policies, something that has all but disappeared under Trump.
Congress responded to surges in legal and illegal immigration in the mid-2000s, for example, by allocating funding for more detention facilities. But lawmakers have been reluctant to take similar steps in recent years, said John Torres, who served assistant secretary of Homeland Security for ICE under Bush.
“What [Morgan] has to deal with is more political infighting with a divided Congress,” Torres said.
The inaction in Congress, combined with the Flores court ruling — which makes it illegal to detain children and families together for more than 20 days — has made it harder for ICE to respond to the current surge in families crossing the border, Torres said.
Detention policies will be one of the most high-profile issues for Morgan if he takes over ICE.
Just last month, a 16-year-old migrant boy died after being transferred from ICE custody, marking the third migrant death since December.
“It isn’t until you are in the director’s chair and someone dies that you really feel personally responsible for this,” Sandweg said.