Morale at the Department of Homeland Security has long ranked lowest among federal agencies. President Donald Trump’s purge of top homeland security officials is making it worse.
Workers, from entry-level staffers to managers, have begun sending around their resumes, desperate to exit a leaderless workplace where they expect soon be ordered to implement legally questionable policies pushed by the White House. Some are even willing to take pay cuts.
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Until this week, loyalty to departing Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen got you ahead at DHS. Now it puts you on the firing line, with those who worked most closely with Nielsen most likely to get the boot. Claire Grady, Nielsen’s acting deputy, resigned Wednesday. Miles Taylor, Nielsen’s chief of staff, may get pushed out, too, according to two former DHS officials who worked under Trump.
“They’re taking the fall for the president’s frustrations,” one current department official told POLITICO. “It’s not what you read about good leadership.”
The turmoil could pitch a Cabinet department already struggling with a staffing shortage at the border further into crisis, even as a rising tide of Central American migrants overwhelms the Trump administration’s ability to respond.
At least six department employees, from entry-level staffers to managers, are inquiring about outside opportunities, according to one former DHS official who worked in the Trump administration. “For them to be looking to leave, and maybe take a pay cut and almost start over, that’s surprising,” this person said.
A second former official said he also has spoken with multiple DHS employees who are now eyeing the exit. “I’ve been getting calls like, ‘Hey, I want to talk to you about what I can do next,“ the person said.
“I think it’s the full turnover of senior staff,” said a current DHS official. “We put in countless hours, everyone here, and then just having the quick turnover. … It doesn’t help morale when we’re in the trenches trying to solve this immigration problem.”
The DHS shakeup comes on the heels of a 35-day partial government shutdown in December and January that required most department personnel to remain on the job even though they weren’t getting paid. The paycheck delays were particularly painful at DHS’s Transportation Security Administration, where some workers were already struggling to pay bills. TSA workers responded by calling in sick en masse and considering a possible strike, an illegal move that could have prompted mass firings.
“People vote with their feet,” said David Lapan, a former DHS spokesperson under Trump who left in October 2017. “If they’re unhappy, they’ll go elsewhere.”
Roughly 150 Homeland Security Department staffers gathered Wednesday in what one official described as “grim fascination” to welcome the first wave of staffers to move to the department’s new headquarters in southeast Washington, D.C. — and, it turned out, to bid Nielsen farewell.
It was, said the aforementioned DHS official, “a little surreal.” The Gothic Revival campus was built in the mid-19th century to house the Government Hospital for the Insane, later renamed St. Elizabeths. In the current environment, the irony of the move has not escaped notice.
“I think it’s fitting given the state of things right now,” said one of the former DHS officials. “I’m going through the stages of grief.”
Nielsen ticked through her accomplishments at DHS, then cut a ribbon with acting Deputy Secretary Claire Grady — another casualty of Trump’s shakeup. More departures are expected in the coming week.
“Once you get two layers deep below the secretary, deputy, under secretary level, most of these folks have their heads down,” the official said. “They’ve got actual jobs that they’re doing.”
The division that’s arguably most rattled by the DHS purge is U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. USCIS’s director, Francis Cissna, is praised by immigration restrictionists for taking a hard line. But his legally meticulous approach has put him crosswise with White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, and people familiar with the situation have said he’ll be pushed out, too.
The White House, POLITICO reported earlier this week, is considering for Cissna’s replacement the former executive director of an immigration restrictionist group that the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as a “hate group.” That possibility would stun parts of the USCIS workforce, which prides itself on facilitating the legal immigration process. The job candidate is current USCIS Ombudsman Julie Kirchner, who previously worked for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to reduce legal immigration by more than two-thirds.
“There is definitely potential that [USCIS employees] will question the integrity of the leadership they’re getting,” said one former senior Obama administration official.
Workers in USCIS’s already-marginalized asylum division (by which is meant government employees who work with refugees, not government employees relocated to St. Elizabeths) wondered this week whether the top-level changes would imperil their mission further, according to Michael Knowles, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1924.
Trump routinely refers to asylum laws as “loopholes,” and he’s portrayed migrants arriving at the border indiscriminately as criminals or “illegals,” a viewpoint that makes some USCIS employees fearful of the White House’s intentions, according to Knowles.
“When we see our whole department shaken up up over this issue, it’s kind of hard not to conclude that we’re viewed as a problem,” he said. “It’s made out that we’re admitting hordes of people and not knowing what we’re doing.”