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Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan talks shift in arrivals at the Southern border and conditions at Texas facilities.
USA TODAY

Kevin McAleenan didn’t take the traditional route as he rose the Homeland Security ranks.

But now, with Sunday’s resignation of Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, he’s set to become acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. 

Her departure, and his ascension, come as a surge of migrants has overwhelmed the U.S. immigration system in recent months. In response, Trump threatened to close the border and cut off aid to the Central American countries that migrants continue to flee. Trump visited the border in Calexico, California, on Friday along with Nielsen.

Nielsen has voiced increasing frustration at the situation, which the administration considers a national security crisis, and last week she compared it to a Category 5 hurricane.

More: Cutting aid and closing ports: Here’s what’s happening at the southern border

McAleenan has been at the center of that storm.

Carried out Trump’s border efforts 

After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School in 1998, he worked for several years in California as an attorney practicing business and corporate law. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he decided to change course, first applying to the FBI, and eventually landing a job at what is now Customs and Border Protection.

McAleenan headed that agency’s antiterrorism office and served as the port director of Los Angeles International Airport. He steadily rose through the ranks before Trump nominated him as commissioner of Customs and Border Protection and its 45,000 law enforcement personnel.

Ever since, McAleenan has carried out some of Trump’s most controversial efforts to halt undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers from crossing the southern border.

The Customs officers and Border Patrol agents he commands were the ones who separated more than 2,800 migrant children from their families during Trump’s now-blocked “zero tolerance” policy.

His officers were the ones who fired tear gas into a crowd of migrants attempting to approach the San Ysidro Port of Entry in November, leading to questions about the administration’s response to a rush of asylum-seeking migrants.

And starting in December, four migrants died in four months while in Border Patrol custody, highlighting the troubling conditions that migrants are housed in after entering the U.S.

McAleenan made several tweaks to his agency’s process, ordering faster public notification of migrants deaths in CBP custody and carrying out orders from Nielsen to medically screen all children held in custody. But his overall approach to the southern border has remained consistently in line with Trump’s.

During a visit to the San Ysidro Port of Entry last year, he was asked why the administration was adding National Guardsmen, active-duty military troops, and additional Border Patrol agents to the southern border, but not making a similar effort to add asylum officers to process and care for migrants seeking help. His answer: “This is a law enforcement situation.”

In charge of full immigration script

He also defended another controversial practice employed by the agency of “metering” would-be asylum-seekers, meaning only a limited number are allowed to enter U.S. ports of entry each day to request asylum. Critics of that process say it’s unfair of Trump to ask migrants to make their asylum claims at ports, then making them wait weeks or months on the Mexican side of the border to make that claim.

“It’s not turning people away, it’s asking them to wait,” he said.

McAleenan will now be asked to implement the full range of Trump’s anti-immigration script. That includes taking Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has been arresting more undocumented immigrants living in the interior of the country. He will be in charge of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which has faced accusations of slow-walking visa and green cards applications. And he’ll also be in charge of the Secret Service, the Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.