John Kelly’s sterling reputation as a Marine general with an appreciation for nuance led many Democrats to back his nomination as Homeland Security secretary in the hopes that he would rein in President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration and security policies.
Instead, Kelly has moved to impose those policies with military rigor. He has pursued an aggressive deportation campaign; defended Trump’s effort to ban visitors from several Muslim-majority countries; and hinted that he might separate migrant parents from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Kelly has joked with Trump about using violence against reporters and defended Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner amid allegations that he tried to set up a secret backchannel to the Russian government.
Today, it’s tough to find anyone on the left willing to defend Kelly. He has alienated potential allies on Capitol Hill, including Democrats who voted to confirm him, and is endangering his reputation as a nonpartisan figure in a presidential administration that has relatively few.
“I think Secretary Kelly has drank the Kool-Aid,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) who was among the Democrats who voted to confirm Kelly in January. “He’s not the person who I thought I was voting for.”
Kelly, a blunt-spoken Boston native, is the former commander of U.S. Southern Command. That gave him a close-up view of border security issues in the Southern Hemisphere, including problems with drug trafficking and illegal immigration. The Senate confirmed him 88-11.
One reason so many Democrats supported Kelly, 67, was because he indicated he would not target people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a 2012 program put into effect by President Barack Obama to give work permits to young undocumented immigrants and protect them from deportation.
The program has not been canceled by the president, but there have been several reports of DACA recipients being detained or deported, undermining Kelly’s standing among Democrats and pro-immigration activists.
The secretary has repeatedly declared that his agency is targeting undocumented immigrants with criminal backgrounds for removal from the United States. But he has moved away from an Obama administration policy that prioritized deporting those with serious criminal records and offered relief to lower-level offenders.
In the first three months of the Trump administration, arrests of non-criminal immigrants rose by 157 percent over the same period a year earlier, according to data from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Last month, Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who also voted to confirm Kelly, pounded him for deporting a Honduran mother and her five-year-old son. The mother, who had no criminal record, had fled gang violence and would be in danger if sent back to Honduras, Casey said.
Kelly said the mother and child had tried but failed to obtain permission to stay in the United States, and that under existing statutes, they were due for removal. He further added that most asylum seekers at the border simply parrot well-worn phrases to get a shot at staying in the United States, and that the woman had done just that.
Casey said this past week that he has been talking with Kelly to schedule a private meeting, so the senator can ask him about the administration’s policy on how they decide to deport an immigrant and when they use discretion.
“Look, we’ve had some arguments, the secretary and I,” Casey said. “I want to try to do whatever I can to work with him, but I think we probably have some basic differences.”
Kelly declined to comment for this story.
Kelly’s defenders argue that he is taking stern stances now to prevent problems later. By hinting in March that he might separate undocumented parents from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border, he may have dissuaded many would-be migrants from ever showing up at the boundary line. After floating the idea in early March, Kelly told lawmakers weeks later that, with some exceptions, he would not impose it.
“He’s been given a mission and, like any military person, will accomplish the mission as long as it’s not illegal,” said a retired military officer who served with Kelly. “I would hardly call him cruel. I saw how he interacted with his kids — stern, but no doubt he loved them.”
Another retired military officer said Kelly, who lost a son to combat in Afghanistan, takes extremely seriously his duty to protect the United States, to the point where he may make some decisions that seem unfair. Kelly himself recently said that if more Americans knew the things he knew, they’d “never leave the house.”
“He’s a very approachable guy, but he’s got a job to do,” the retired officer said. “People have got to step back and see it through his eyes.”
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, also defended Kelly, particularly his pledge to respond to oversight requests from anyone in Congress, even as the rest of the administration stonewalls Democrats.
“He has said personally to me that if I hit a wall, call him, and he will try to fix it and get me the information that he has acknowledged that we need and deserve,” McCaskill said.
The secretary has said if Democrats don’t like his enforcement of immigration laws, they should “change those laws” or “shut up.” That bluntness has further infuriated Democrats, who note they have been trying for years to reform immigration laws but have been stymied by Republicans.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), one of Kelly’s fiercest critics on Capitol Hill, rattled off at least a half-dozen concerns she has with the secretary, mostly spanning his handling of immigration policy and transparency at the Department of Homeland Security.
“The role, the mission of the agency is a very important one, which I support 1,000 percent,” said Harris, who opposed Kelly’s confirmation. “But when it comes to transparency and a clear guidance around what the [immigration] enforcement priorities will be at the agency, I have real questions and real concerns.”
“I would like to think he would be a moderating force because of his comments” on DACA, said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), who also voted against confirming Kelly. “He has an understanding of why people want to come to this country, so I would think hopefully that would be part of his thinking.”
Kelly has tried to split the difference on some of the more high-profile Trump promises. On the president’s call for a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, for instance, Kelly has said the barrier is unlikely to run “from sea to shining sea” and that a security plan for the area could involve a mix of a wall, fences, drones and other technology.
But Kelly has surprised observers by standing up for Trump on some especially contentious issues, even when he doesn’t necessarily have to.
He has repeatedly defended Trump’s executive order banning visitors from Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen, although multiple courts have halted the order over concerns that it illegally discriminates against Muslims due to their religion. Kelly alleged to senators Tuesday that the court rulings are hurting counter-terrorism efforts.
Kelly also has said he sees no issue with Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser, trying to establish a secret way to communicate with the Russian government, despite ongoing federal probes into whether Trump aides colluded with the Kremlin in trying to influence the 2016 presidential election.
He told senators during a hearing Tuesday that he assumes Kushner is a “great American.” But several Senate Democrats take issue with Kelly’s defense of the controversial White House adviser.
“I’m concerned that he seems to be treating it as typical established backchannel communications,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), who voted to confirm Kelly. “I think some of the concerns many of us have is that Mr. Kushner seemed to desire great secrecy about this, even from the administration that was then in power.”
And last month, during the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s commencement ceremony, the Homeland Security secretary jokingly told Trump to use a ceremonial saber he was given “on the press.”
Activists say Kelly’s actions and statements suggest he is not familiar with the intricacies of U.S. immigration law, and that as a result he may be willing to go along with hardline interpretations of the law offered by other members of Trump’s Cabinet, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has long championed a crackdown on illegal and sometimes legal immigration. They also say that Kelly has more discretion than he likes to admit in how he enforces the law, such as prioritizing whom to deport.
“He came in with a reputation of listening to all sides of an issue, but to date he has not reached out to the immigrant community in a significant way,” said Kevin Appleby, a senior director with the Center for Migration Studies. “He is increasingly surrounded by ideologues who limit his flexibility to solve problems.”