Confusion over leadership direction at US immigration agency

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump confirmed Friday that he pulled the nomination of a longtime border official to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The move comes as his administration tries to deal with a 12-year high in U.S.-Mexico crossings, straining the U.S. immigration system and leading Trump to threaten to close the border before backing off.

The Associated Press reported earlier that a notice was sent to members of Congress on Thursday withdrawing Ron Vitiello's nomination to lead the agency. But the decision was unexpected and met with confusion.

Vitiello was scheduled to travel with Trump to Calexico, California, on Friday, and some of his aides thought he was still going to that border town even after the paperwork was sent. One Homeland Security official insisted it was nothing but a paperwork error that later was corrected.

Trump said Friday before he left Washington that Vitiello was a "good man," but "we're going in a tougher direction." Trump did not explain what that meant and did not say who he had in mind as a replacement.

The job requires Senate confirmation. Vitiello had cleared one committee, and a second committee was consideration his nomination. Vitiello has been acting head since last June of the agency that enforces U.S. immigration law in the interior of the United States. He has more than 30 years in law enforcement, starting in 1985 with the U.S. Border Patrol. He was previously Border Patrol chief and deputy commissioner U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the patrol.

Vitiello took over during a time of heightened scrutiny of the agency. Part of its mission is to arrest immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, and that has made the agency a symbol of Trump's hard-line policies.

Trump has railed anew recently against increasing border crossings, as well as the release of thousands of migrants into the U.S. because of a lack of space to hold them, a move he derides as "catch and release."

It's a battle cry on a signature issue for the president, who wants to restrict immigration but whose policies have largely failed to do so.

For many years, families arriving at the border were typically released from U.S. custody immediately and allowed to settle with family or friends in the U.S. while their immigration cases wound their way through the courts, a process that often takes years.

But in recent months, the number of families crossing into the U.S. has climbed to record highs, pushing the system to the breaking point. As a result, ICE was releasing families faster, in greater numbers and at points farther removed from the border. Since Dec. 21, the agency set free more than 125,000 people who came into the U.S. as families.

Trump on Friday was to tour a recently built portion of fence that he is holding up as the answer to stop a surge of migrant families coming to the U.S. in recent months.

The White House says it's the first section of his proposed border wall to be built, commemorated with a plaque bearing his name and those of top immigration and homeland security officials — but not Vitiello's.

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