Top Trump administration officials grew angry with Matt Albence, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, after he announced that immigration authorities would halt most enforcement efforts during the coronavirus outbreak, according to three people familiar with the situation.
The displeasure with Albence spread throughout Trumpworld and triggered worries about the political implications of adopting — even temporarily — an immigration stance similar to the Obama administration approach. “He’s been on thin ice for some time,” a fourth person said.
The White House, the Department of Homeland Security, in which ICE is housed, and ICE didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Albence did not provide a comment.
ICE last week said it would prioritize deportation for foreign nationals who have committed crimes or pose a threat to public safety, and not those at doctors’ offices and hospitals.
“ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) will focus enforcement on public safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds,” ICE said in a statement posted on its website. “For those individuals who do not fall into those categories, ERO will exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions until after the crisis or utilize alternatives to detention, as appropriate.”
Trump made cracking down on immigration a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, calling for a southern border wall and deporting all 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
The change, announced March 18, is similar to an Obama administration policy that focused on immigrants who had committed crimes. Albence made the decision unilaterally, according to two people familiar with the matter.
After Albence notified lawmakers about the change in phone calls last week and the press release was issued, he was chastised by acting deputy secretary Ken Cuccinelli who wasn’t happy with him after the surprise announcement, according to a former senior DHS official.
The day after the press release, Cuccinelli tried to walk back the statement. He tweeted a thread issuing a “clarification” of ICE’s announcement about enforcement during the pandemic.
“@ICEgov will, as it has during other times of crisis, conduct enforcement operations that protect our communities and uphold our laws. This means that @ICEgov will continue to prioritize arresting and removing criminal aliens and other aliens who pose a threat to public safety, just as it always has during President @realDonaldTrump’s administration,” he also said.
“That does not mean that no other removable aliens will in fact be removed, but during the current public health situation, removals will be done in such a way as to minimize the exposure of our agents and of the removable aliens we are encountering.”
Trump also saw news on it and was wondering what was going on, according to the former senior DHS official.
Senior DHS officials were “really ripping in terms of that happening because it wasn’t really coordinated with anyone else,” said the person. “He got in deep shit for that the next day. So they’ve been trying to un-ring that bell.”
A DHS official confirmed that DHS headquarters telegraphed frustration to Enforcement and Removal Operations — the ICE component that handles detentions and deportations — over reports regarding a pause in some enforcement operations.
Betsy Woodruff Swan contributed to this report.