Ken Cuccinelli, the controversial acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, has been elevated to the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, according to an internal announcement obtained by BuzzFeed News, a move that puts the immigration hardliner in a key position to shape and oversee policy as the presidential campaign ramps up.
Cuccinelli’s appointment was announced in an email Wednesday from Chad Wolf, the newly installed acting DHS secretary.
“Ken Cuccinelli has been a constant and vocal advocate for the men and women of the Department who are protecting our borders and restoring integrity to our immigration system,” Wolf wrote at the bottom of an email in which he introduced himself as the department's acting secretary. Wolf is the fifth person to lead an agency that has seen an unprecedented level of turnover in the last year and has a stable of acting leaders, including Cuccinelli, in key positions.
In his short stint as acting USCIS director, Cuccinelli helped develop a wide range of restrictive policies, including those that would charge asylum-seekers to apply for protection, deny permanent residency to individuals who used or were likely to use public benefits, and restrict work permits for most asylum-seekers, among other initiatives. In an email to asylum officers, he implored them to be stricter in the interviews.
Cuccinelli has maintained an active Twitter account where he has attacked the asylum officers union for criticizing administration policies, relentlessly praised the president, and repeatedly disparaged local jurisdictions for policies that limit their cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Cuccinelli often tweeted more about agencies he had no control over, like ICE or US Customs and Border Protection, than about his own, much to the dismay of some agency officials.
“Over the past five months it has been my distinct honor to see firsthand, your dedication to the USCIS mission. In this short period of time, I am proud of our many accomplishments,” Cuccinelli wrote to USCIS staff in an email obtained by BuzzFeed News. Cuccinelli cited the "public charge" rule, which was later blocked by multiple federal court judges, as one of his proudest accomplishments.
But for those within USCIS, the departure of Cuccinelli was met not just with relief but consternation over the potential increase in his authority over key immigration matters. In his email to staff, Cuccinelli announced that Mark Koumans, the deputy director of the agency, would lead USCIS during the transition.
“This is another end run around proper procedures by the Trump administration,” said one USCIS official. “Wolf will delegate all immigration matters to Cuccinelli as acting deputy secretary, thereby giving him authority over all DHS immigration matters.”
A former senior DHS official also said that Cuccinelli would now likely handle immigration matters at the agency.
“Hardline and vocal supporters of the president are important to him,” the former official said.
Bennie Thompson, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, denounced the decision to elevate Cuccinelli to the deputy role, calling him "nothing more than an anti-immigrant fringe figure and Trump sycophant."
“The fact that the president installed someone who is unable to be confirmed by the Senate for any position and cannot legally serve as acting secretary shows his reckless regard for democratic norms and the law," Thompson said in a statement. "This is clearly a legally questionable appointment.”
Asylum officers at USCIS, who often felt they were targeted by Cuccinelli, said it appeared he was not satisfied with his position as acting director of the agency.
“He never appeared to really want the USCIS job to begin with, always referencing ICE and CBP and their good work, talking about how USCIS is a vetting organization and not a benefits organization,” said one asylum officer. “He was always interviewing for DHS. That was always the goal."
Another officer told BuzzFeed News that they hoped “Cuccinelli will honor the laws and regulations of the larger department with care that has been noticeably lacking during his tenure at USCIS.”
As a Virginia lawmaker, Cuccinelli sponsored a resolution in 2008 calling for a rewrite of the Constitution to deny citizenship to Americans who were born to immigrants who crossed the border without authorization.
“No doubt he will continue to inflict damage upon USCIS’s processes from his new perch,” said another USCIS official.
While USCIS has long focused on providing services to immigrants — evaluating applicants' permanent residency, work authorization, and naturalization — under the Trump administration it has made a restrictive turn, emphasizing its enforcement, former officials say.
“At every opportunity, Cuccinelli speaks with a law enforcement tone,” said a USCIS official, “forgetting or omitting that large parts of the USCIS workload are about humanitarian efforts and generally celebrating the contributions immigrants make to our country.”