Trump picks immigration hardliner to lead USCIS

The Stephen Miller-ification of DHS officially begins.

Virginia Republican gubernatorial  candidate Ken Cuccinelli delivers his concession speech during the election night party at the Richmond Marriott on November 5, 2013 in Richmond, Va. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VA - NOVEMBER 5: Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli delivers his concession speech during the election night party at the Richmond Marriott on November 5, 2013 in Richmond, Va. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Former Virginia Attorney General and immigration hardliner Ken Cuccinelli will be the new head of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency confirmed Monday.

“I am honored to be given the opportunity to lead U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at this critical time and serve alongside this agency’s dedicated workforce,” Acting Director Cuccinelli said in a statement. “USCIS has the extraordinary responsibility to administer and protect the integrity of our nation’s lawful immigration system. Our nation has the most generous legal immigration system in the world and we must zealously safeguard its promise for those who lawfully come here. I look forward to working with the men and women of USCIS to ensure our legal immigration system operates effectively and efficiently while deterring fraud and protecting the American people.”

Cuccinelli will not be expected to take on the role of immigration czar, a position President Donald Trump had reportedly considered creating, but will instead be working to ensure that “asylum loopholes” are closed, according to an email from Cuccinelli to USCIS staff obtained by BuzzFeed News.

Following his four year stint as the Virginia attorney general, and a failed gubernatorial run in 2013, Cuccinelli frequently appeared on some of Trump’s favorite cable news shows to defend him. In 2017, he signed with CNN as legal commentator.


More recently, Cuccinelli penned an op-ed in the conservative Washington Examiner supporting the president’s decision to deploy troops at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Cuccinelli has the support of mainstream conservatives who rallied behind him for the position of DHS secretary after top posts at the agency were left vacant last month following the mass exodus of Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, acting Secretary Claire Grady, and acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Ron Vitiello.

In April, 19 leaders of conservative groups, including Tea Party Patriots Action and Concerned Women For America, sent a letter to Trump recommending Cuccinelli for a top immigration post within the administration.

“In this time of national crisis and emergency over national security and immigration, Ken’s background as a no-nonsense law enforcement officer and a major constitutional lawyer, along with his reputation as a fighter, combined with his extensive media experience, including television, make him ideally suited to carry out the duties of the Department of Homeland Security and your immigration agenda,” the letter read.

Immigration advocates, however, are concerned that Cuccinelli’s appointment signals an official shift to the Stephen Miller-fication of DHS — a reference to virulently anti-immigrant White House senior adviser Stephen Miller — and is a mere ploy to score points with Trump’s anti-immigrant base ahead of a hotly contested election.


“While immigration hardliners demand evermore cruel and punitive policies, the majority of Americans are moving away from the President on immigration,” Douglas Rivlin, communications director for America’s Voice, said in a statement. “Trump the President and Trump the candidate are leaning in to demonizing immigrants, sowing division, and skirting the will of Congress, all while failing to propose and implement realistic and reasonable policies that would reduce and resolve the immigration chaos and the humanitarian crisis facing the country.”

While Nielsen may have been fired for not being tough enough on the border and immigration enforcement in the United States, Trump is unlikely to have those issues with Cuccinelli.

In 2012, Cuccinelli compared immigrants to rats in a conversation on a conservative radio talk show.

Responding to reports that rodents were present at an Occupy Wall Street encampment in Washington, D.C., Cuccinelli referenced a D.C. city law aimed at protecting wildlife and incorrectly said that pest control is prohibited from breaking up rodent families.

“[The D.C. wildlife protection policy] is worse than our immigration policy — you can’t break up rat families. Or raccoons or all the rest and you can’t even kill them,” Cuccinelli said. “It’s unbelievable.”

(This is not an accurate reading of D.C. pest control law.)

Cuccinelli also has a history of invoking the same heavily-coded language against immigrants as Trump. He appeared on another conservative radio show in 2015 and claimed President Barack Obama’s immigration policy was encouraging an “invasion.”


“We’re being invaded, right? One person at a time, we’re being invaded,” he said. “And the president isn’t protecting us from invasion, he’s encouraging the invasion, and he’s doing it unconstitutionally.”

While preparing an unsuccessful run for governor in 2013, Cuccinelli wiped his anti-immigrant record from his campaign website. A cached version of the site boasted how he “voted consistently against in-state tuition for illegal aliens,” ramped up deportations, and defended Arizona’s SB 1070 law, which included the controversial “show me your papers” provision that allowed police officers to stop people simply to verify their immigration status.

It’s not just immigration. Cuccinelli also has a Trumpian record on a variety of controversial issues. He has fought against all abortion even in cases of rape and incest, took thousands in gifts from the a controversial tobacco executive, and is a climate change denier.

Cuccinelli’s record on LGBTQ rights in particular has been dismal. He believes same-sex acts are “against nature and are harmful to society” and petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn a lower court’s ruling that struck down Virginia’s anti-sodomy statute.

“My view is that homosexual acts, not homosexuality, but homosexual acts are wrong. They’re intrinsically wrong,” Cuccinelli said in 2013. “And I think in a natural law-based country it’s appropriate to have policies that reflect that.”

He even opposed a state bill that allowed private companies to voluntarily provide health insurance benefits to employees’ domestic partners, warning it might “encourage” homosexual acts. Even Republicans have called his stance on certain LGBTQ issues “reprehensible.

Cuccinelli’s anti-LGBTQ position could have a very real impact on LGBTQ migrants, who are routinely abused by the nation’s immigration policies. LGBTQ immigrants held at federal detention centers are 97 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other detainees, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, and ICE “detains transgender women in 17 facilities, but four are all-male facilities.” (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent newsroom housed within the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)

The Trump administration’s attacks on asylum disproportionately impact LGBTQ migrants, who are fleeing direct violence in their countries of origin.

Miller is reportedly drafting radical changes to U.S. asylum law, which he and Trump view as “loopholes.” Some of the changes include forcing asylees to pay an asylum application fee while simultaneously barring them from legally working in the United States while their cases are adjudicated. Another proposal from the administration would train border patrol agents to serve as asylum officers, a plan which would force individuals trained as law enforcement to adjudicate asylum claims from LGBTQ individuals.

“LGBTQ asylum cases are some of the most complicated at the credible fear stage,” Aaron Morris, executive director at Immigration Equality, told ThinkProgress. “Fleeing from places where it wasn’t safe to admit who they were. To approach the U.S. border and one of the first things you need to say is ‘I’m gay’ when maybe you’ve never said it yourself out loud before … you’re certainly not going to want to say that to someone holding a weapon.”