The Trump administration has named a hardline former leader of an anti-immigration group to help set up a new role created by Congress to oversee complaints of civil rights violations in detention centers and help those affected by misconduct, according to an internal memo obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The Office of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman was created in the most recent appropriations bill to “address issues that arise in DHS detention facilities” and remain independent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or US Customs and Border Protection. The office will report directly to the secretary of Homeland Security.
Ken Cuccinelli, the controversial second-in-command at the Department of Homeland Security, appointed Julie Kirchner, former leader of FAIR, a group that advocated for policies that restrict immigration, to help set up the office, according to the memo. Cuccinelli also tapped Tracy Short — a former top ICE official who signed memos during the Trump administration to stop the agency from granting reprieves for certain immigrants facing deportation — to also help figure out the plans for the office.
“To spearhead this effort, I have asked Julie Kirchner, outgoing Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman, and Tracy Short, Senior Advisor at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to work with senior leadership and staff within the Department to lay the proper foundation for the [office],” according to the memo, which was dated Jan. 28.
Congress provided $10 million for the office to address issues of misconduct by DHS officials in detention centers, establish a process to oversee complaints made against immigration officials, inspect facilities, provide recommendations for improvement, and potentially help those whose rights have been violated while in custody.
“In the immediate days and weeks Julie and Tracy will be contacting a variety of individuals across the Department to solicit their input and request information regarding the formation of this new office,” Cuccinelli wrote.
Kirchner was initially picked as the ombudsman at USCIS in 2017, before her departure in the role was announced late last year.
When her appointment was originally announced in 2017, advocacy groups were outraged, due to her background at FAIR, which the Southern Poverty Law Center had labeled a hate group and "America’s most influential anti-immigrant organization."
"Kirchner’s new position is a very powerful one, which it makes it all the more disturbing considering her past work," the SPLC said at the time.
The move to appoint Kirchner and Short to help “lay the proper foundation” for the office will likely spur criticism from Congressional officials.
“That’s like letting the fox watch the hens,” said one congressional staffer in a message to BuzzFeed News.
John Sandweg, former acting head of ICE during the Obama administration, said the move was not surprising, but potentially indicative of how the administration sees the role.
“These are the architects of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policies,” he said. “It’s not a surprise they would try to build this thing in a way that makes it as less impactful as possible and seems inconsistent with the intent of Congress when they created the office. We have to wait to see what the end product is.”
DHS did not immediately comment.
ICE has expanded the number of people it detains to record levels under President Trump. As of late January, the agency was detaining nearly 41,000 immigrants. The peak came last summer, when around 55,000 immigrants were in custody in local jails and private prisons across the country.
In December, the House Oversight and Reform Committee announced it had opened an investigation into the medical care of immigrant detainees in the wake of a BuzzFeed News story that revealed a series of allegations of substandard care from a whistleblower.