Washington —on Wednesday took over as President Trump’s top official at the Department of Homeland Security, assuming control of the bureaucratic juggernaut at the center of the administration’s crackdown on legal and illegal immigration.
Wolf’s appointment as acting Homeland Security secretary, confirmed by a department spokesperson, allowed Kevin McAleenan, who announced hisin October after serving in the post for about half a year, to finally step down. He becomes the fifth official to lead the department during Mr. Trump’s presidency, highlighting the unusual turnover for the post over the past two years.
The leadership change at the federal government’s third largest department came after Wolf was confirmed by the Republican-led Senate earlier on Thursday as undersecretary for strategy, policy and plans, a position he had held on acting basis since February.
It is unclear if the president intends to nominate Wolf for the permanent secretary role, which requires Senate confirmation.
Regardless, Wolf will be under pressure to continue pushing the administration’s controversial immigration agenda through the three agencies within the department’s that handle border security, immigration enforcement and benefits for non-citizens: Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Although its immigration-related responsibilities have been the most visible under Mr. Trump’s tenure, the sprawling department has other important tasks, including command of the U.S. Coast Guard, cyber and airport security, disaster response and election infrastructure.
Wolf was nominated for the undersecretary position in February of this year, but Senator Jacky Rosen, a Democrat from Nevada, placed a hold on his nomination over the summer, citing squalid conditions at migrant detention centers near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Before his nomination, Wolf served as a top aide to former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, the last Senate-confirmed head of the department. In this role, he helped draft controversial policies to deter migrants heading to the southern border, including the detention of asylum-seekers and the widely condemned practice of separating families.
Wolf first joined the Department of Homeland Security shortly after its creation in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, serving in the Transportation Security Agency for three years. He later lobbied on behalf of a firm that represented companies hiring foreign workers for more than a decade before returning to government to serve as Nielsen’s aide.
Asked about his role overseeing these policies during a Senate hearing on his confirmation in June, Wolf said his job was to ensure Nielsen had the necessary information to lead the department — not to determine whether policies were “right or wrong.”
Before Mr. Trump announced Wolf’s appointment, immigration hardliners were urging him to install Ken Cuccinelli or Mark Morgan, the acting heads of USCIS and CBP, to the post. But questions soon arose about the legality of the appointment of either of the two immigration hardliners, who have been vocal in their support for the president’s immigration agenda and rhetoric.
Reacting to the appointment on Wednesday, Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas, the Democratic chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said he could not trust Wolf to lead the Department of Homeland Security “given his troubling track record.”
“As Chief of Staff to Kristjen Nilsen, Wolf orchestrated the zero tolerance policy that tore thousands of families apart and inflicted life-long trauma on children,” Castro said in a statement. “The policies imposed under his guidance have enforced unimaginable pain and suffering on vulnerable migrant families.”