Homeland Security John Kelly was greeted with a “lovefest” when he went before the Senate for his confirmation hearing in January.
The approbation he received on Capital Hill was informed by his long and successful military career, which concluded with his leadership of US Southern Command.
His appointment to lead the Homeland Security Department was met with optimism, as he had expressed more nuanced opinions about many of the challenges the US faced at its southern border and in the hemisphere — an outlook that seemed at odds with many of President Donald Trump’s hardline stances.
So far, though, Kelly’s tenure has backed up more of those hardline points. While Trump’s predecessor deported large numbers of migrants, the first weeks of his term have seen the number of US government flights landing in Mexico City with deportees rise from two to three each week.
About 500 Mexicans, some picked up under President Barack Obama, have been arriving there daily.
Hundreds more have been rounded up by immigration officers in the US in recent weeks. While Kelly has said a good portion of those apprehended in the US are convicted criminals, many of those deportees arriving in Mexico have no criminal records, reports have said.
The Department of Homeland Security is reportedly planning a massive expansion its detention facilities for immigrant families seeking asylum. Kelly has also confirmed reports that he’s considering separating women and children who cross the border illegally together, many of them fleeing violence and depredations in Central America.
Kelly framed the separations as a method to deter migration. But he acknowledged during his confirmation hearing that many of those people were attempting to flee violence in their home countries, and others have said there is little that is likely to deter their flight.
“If you have people who are willing to cross the US border and the desert at the risk of dying, the thought of trying to deter people doesn’t really fit with reality,” Maureen Meyer, senior associate for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Vice in November.
The New York Times editorial board called the proposed separations “a shocking abuse of traumatized families who — as Mr. Kelly himself admits — are fleeing for their lives. He defended the policy as a way of deterring migrants from the dangerous trip. That is cruelty disguised as compassion.”
During his Senate confirmation hearing in January, Kelly said, “As a military person that understands defence and defences, a physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job.”
“If we were to block the network so nothing could get through the southwest border … they would find other ways around it,” he said, referring to drug traffickers.
“The profits are so outrageous, that is why I believe it’s all about the demand.”
But he appears to be moving ahead with the construction of Trump’s proposed border wall.
“The wall will be built where it’s needed first, and then it will be filled in. That’s the way I look at it,” he said in early February.
A few days later, he said he expected the wall to be “well under way” within the next two years and said it would be a “physical barrier” that may be fencing in some places.
Kelly’s pursuit of deportations and apparent commitment to Trump’s wall have inspired anger in Mexico.
“They don’t care for John Kelly, because … they look at him as not having the moral courage to stand up to Trump,” Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration who maintains contact with Mexican law-enforcement officials, told Business Insider.
Despite Kelly’s background, “they look at him as being a puppet of Trump,” Vigil said.
“And the reason that they don’t like him is, again, the deportations, the continued comments about building the wall.” Vigil, author of “Metal Coffins: The Blood Alliance Cartel,” told Business Insider. “So they’re not going to do anything with Kelly.”
The Mexican government has repeatedly insisted that it will not pay for the wall.
On the US side of the border, frustration with Trump’s Homeland Security policies was again inflamed by the recent report that funding for the border wall could come from cuts to the budgets of the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the US Coast Guard.
“The senselessness of such cuts is obvious if you understand some basic concepts. Like, the Coast Guard guards our coasts. It plays a major role in interdicting drugs at sea. The T.S.A. keeps bombs off our planes. FEMA helps people after disasters,” The New York Times editorial board writes. “If your goal at Homeland Security is security for the homeland, you recognise that the job is more complicated than contracting out one 2,000-mile wall.”
Kelly, during his confirmation hearing, touted the effectiveness of drug interdiction in the Gulf of Mexico.
But the Coast Guard’s deputy commandant recently admitted that the Coast Guard was so resource-strained that it could only pursue about 30% of the known illegally shipments in the Caribbean, and Adm. Kurt Tidd, Kelly’s successor at Southern Command, testified last spring that his forces did not have the ships or aircraft needed interdict the illegal traffick flowing through the Gulf of Mexico.
Further cuts to the Coast Guard, TSA, or FEMA, some have argued, would only leave the US more insecure, contradicting Trump’s campaign promises and hindering Kelly’s mission as Homeland Security secretary.
Kelly’s military experience, bluntness, and thoughtfulness led many to view him as well-suited for dealing with the organizational and political challenges of his new role.
As a former military commander and now cabinet secretary, Kelly is carrying out the policies dictated by his boss, Donald Trump. But those policies have led to questions over what kind of influence Kelly has had on the administration’s policymaking process.
“Is Mr. Kelly — a tough, sensible general — being silenced?” The New York Times editorial board asked. “If he won’t speak the truth, he’s misusing his power.”
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