Elaine Duke had been retired for several years from a three-decade federal government career when she got a call last winter to come back to Washington D.C.
After Donald Trump’s surprise presidential win, the campaign-turned-transition team was scrambling to find experts to staff the government. Duke, 58, had years of experience at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, and an added appeal—unlike many experienced senior Republicans in the sector, she wasn’t a vocal “Never Trumper.”
Appointed by George W. Bush to “undersecretary of management” at the Department of Homeland Security in 2008, essentially giving her oversight of the DHS’s over 200,000 employees and $47 billion budget, Duke had stayed on under Barack Obama for two years before retiring. Former colleagues described her to Quartz as the rare apolitical presidential appointee, focused on the agency’s mission and employees because she, too, had been a “line worker” for years.
Now Duke appears to be caught in a high-profile battle she never could have anticipated. As acting head of the DHS, Duke currently stands in the way of the Trump White House’s alleged push to deport nearly 450,000 people who live and work legally in the US, and hail from nations torn by natural disaster and war. They’re part of the US’s “safe haven” Temporary Protected Status, or TPS program, which was started in 1990.
One former colleague described Duke to Quartz as “a very soft spoken, modest person who drives a Prius.” Another added, “For the life of me, I don’t know why she decided to leave her nice life” to go back into government. “Why would you do this unless you thought this was somewhere you could help?” he said.
(Duke did not respond to a message sent to her assistant at DHS. The reporting in this article is drawn from current and former DHS and White House employees, who mostly agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.)
The start of mass deportation?
Friction between Duke and the White House became evident this past Monday (Nov. 6), after Duke decided not to cancel TPS status for nearly 60,000 people from Honduras, essentially extending their stay for another six months. (The TPS status for Nicaraguans was canceled, however, and the 2,500 people affected were given 12 months before they have to leave the country).
Before the agency put out a press release on the subject, Duke got calls from former DHS head and current White House chief of staff John Kelly, and White House advisor Tom Bossert, asking her to change her mind and cancel TPS status for Hondurans as well, a former Duke colleague told Quartz.
The calls, which were previously reported in the Washington Post, are part of a larger pattern, this ex-DHS official alleged. Kelly is hoping to “clear the decks” so the White House’s nominee to run DHS permanently, Kirstjen Nielsen, can expel almost all of the 437,000 people from 10 countries (pdf) in the TPS program, he claimed.
The White House refutes the notion that General Kelly was trying to pressure Duke, and said he was merely pushing her to make a decision instead.
General Kelly’s message was, “This is your call, you have to make it, and accept the consequences,” a White House official said. Kelly generally tells staff their decisions should “reflect the over-arching policy goals we have set as the administration,” the official said. The White House believes the DHS has the legal right to handle this decision, he added.
“There were a variety of views inside the administration on TPS,” DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton told Quartz. “It is perfectly normal for members of the White House team to weigh in on major decisions.”
Immigration experts and members of Congress have already sounded alarms about Kelly’s TPS plans, however. “I think we have to prepare for the worst and get ready to fight mass deportation,” Democratic Congressman Luis V. Gutiérrez said in July after a meeting with Kelly.
Nielsen, the nominee to run DHS, is Kelly’s current deputy at the White House, and was his chief of staff at DHS. Her appointment to replace Duke has been touted by White House officials as a way to insure the continuity of Kelly’s plans.
It’s unclear what Duke’s thought process was. Her former colleagues describe her as someone who is principled in her decision making, and who prizes legal, fair decisions.
But after being pressured by White House officials on the TPS program, Duke has pledged to resign after a new head is named to fill the job she’s doing now, former colleagues told Quartz and the Washington Post. That pledge, in turn, has alarmed Congressional Democrats, who now want to subject Nielsen to additional scrutiny.
“Given the possibility, based on news reports, that the Department’s Senate-confirmed Deputy Secretary may soon resign, Committee members should be given a chance to revisit Ms. Nielsen’s management qualifications in a formal hearing setting,” five Senate Democrats wrote (paywall) in a letter to the heads of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
A temporary, permanent program
TPS is part of the 1990 immigration act signed into law by George H. W. Bush. It was the US’s most comprehensive immigration reform since the 1960s, and part of a bipartisan effort to close the “back door” of illegal immigration to open the US’s “front door” instead and increase legal immigration, Bush said at the time.
The act represents a “complementary blending of our tradition of family reunification with increased immigration of skilled individuals to meet our economic needs,” Bush said. (He did, however, express some concern that the power to designate a nation’s TPS status didn’t reside with the White House.)
Anti-immigration activists like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, have been arguing against the program basically since it started, saying it rewards illegal immigration. US administrations continue to extend TPS status long after it is first granted, often at the request of immigrants’ home countries.
Rony Ponthieux, right, hugs his daughter, 10, during a news conference in favor of extending TPS. Rony has been in the US for 18 years on TPS status. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
TPS holders often find themselves stuck in a legal bind, with local courts refusing to allow them to become permanent residents, but with permission to live and work in the US for many years. Consequently, many TPS status holders are long-time residents, with families, and deporting them would tear these families apart.
TPS holders from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti alone number 300,000, and they been in the US for an average of 19 years according to the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan think tank. Together, they’re raising 275,000 children born in the US who are American citizens.
Duke’s trial by fire
Duke automatically became the acting head of the DHS in late July, after Kelly moved to the White House.
Less than four weeks later, Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf of Mexico, making landfall not once but twice, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, destroying entire neighborhoods, and flooding over a dozen toxic waste sites.
As Harvey bore down, the Trump administration had yet to fill many of the politically-appointed positions at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is part of DHS. “We expect a huge amount of flooding and a storm surge,” Duke told NPR.
Then in early September, Hurricane Irma struck Florida, after leaving one million people in Puerto Rico without power, and destroying 25% of the homes in the Florida Keys. And on September 20, Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, wiping out electricity, running water, and telecom connections.
Duke, center, is briefed on the Hurricane Maria response during a flight to Puerto Rico in September. (AP Photo/Luis Alonso Lugo)
“I don’t ever remember seeing a series of these emergencies one after another,” said a retired senior DHS officer who worked closely with Duke in her earlier stint at the agency. “Her team did a hell of a job.”
Returning to a US government job from retirement isn’t lucrative, he pointed out. Returnees are paid the difference between the federal pension they’re already receiving for a career of work, and the stated salary for the position (in other words, they’re working full-time, for a part-time paycheck).
Duke’s departure isn’t imminent, the DHS insists. “Acting Secretary Duke is committed to continuing her work at DHS,” Houlton, the DHS spokesman, told Quartz. This week, he said, she hosted an annual award ceremony to “recognize many of the remarkable men and women at DHS who protect our country and whom she respects so greatly.”
Democrats in the House of Representatives are also concerned, however. “The Department of Homeland Security’s leadership should not be subjected to constant political interference from the White House,” Bennie G. Thompson, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement on Nov. 10.
If Duke were to leave the DHS, “it would be a great loss to both DHS and the country,” he said.