By Colleen Long and Jill Colvin / Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The notice to Congress from the White House was met with confusion: Why would President Donald Trump withdraw his nominee to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement?
Longtime border official Ron Vitiello appeared to be cruising toward confirmation. One Senate committee had endorsed his nomination and a second was likely to follow suit despite opposition from some Democrats and a union representing some agency officers.
No one in the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the immigration agency, had been notified about the intention to remove Vitiello from consideration, according to people familiar with the decision. Officials at Homeland Security and congressional aides thought it must have been a paperwork error made by the White House personnel office that would be resolved quickly.
Turns out, it wasn’t a mistake. Trump on Friday confirmed he had pulled the nomination, even as he called Vitiello a “good man.”
“But we’re going in a tougher direction. We want to go in a tougher direction,” he said.
Trump did not explain what that meant and did not say whom he had in mind as a replacement. But the decision comes as his administration is struggling to deal with an influx of Central American migrants, which has led to a 12-year high in U.S.-Mexico border crossings, straining the U.S. immigration system.
In a letter addressed to all ICE employees Friday, Vitiello thanked the president and members of Congress for their support.
“No matter the external circumstances, I am grateful knowing you remain engaged and dedicated to the critical work of protecting our communities from the transnational criminal organizations and cross-border crime that threatens our nation,” he wrote.
“While I will not become the permanent director of ICE, I look forward to working alongside you in serving the American public with Integrity, Courage, and Excellence.”
Six government and congressional officials involved in immigration issues suggested the decision to drop Vitiello could be an impulsive staff shake-up driven by the fact that White House policies intended to stop migrants have not succeeded.
Many blamed Stephen Miller, the influential West Wing aide, for the decision on Vitiello and saw it as part of a plan to replace longtime immigration officials with hard-liners who appealed more to allies of Trump and Miller. The officials were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Vitiello has been acting head of the agency since June. He has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, starting in 1985 with the U.S. Border Patrol.