Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly told an audience at George Washington University Tuesday, April 18th that when it comes to his department, the only role of Congress is to pass laws and “shut up.” Kelly, whose brief tenure has seen repeated constitutional violations by his department at his order, bristled at any criticism from elected officials, non-profit organizations, and the victims of his policies.
Former General Kelly began barking orders in the first days of the Trump administration. Implementing the illegal Muslim ban, arresting an immigrant woman at a court appearance where she sought protection from her abuser and creating a now-discontinued blacklist of police departments that refused to act as immigration enforcement agents have led many to question Kelly’s heavy-handed approach to immigration.
Kelly even criticized the American public for sympathy towards immigrants, saying that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol agents are “frequently convicted in the court of public opinion on unfounded allegations testified to by street lawyers and street spokespersons.” I am not sure what Kelly means by “street lawyers and street spokespeople.” A “street lawyer” is someone without a law degree who gives a legal opinion. But Kelly’s anti-Muslim actions in January, February, and March were criticized by plenty of real lawyers, law professors, and ultimately were blocked by judges. Kelly was not just “convicted in the court of public opinion,” his actions were overturned in the courts of law.
Kelly declared that Congress’ only role in immigration is to pass laws, saying that “If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce—then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws.” Apart from that “they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.”
This shocking demand that Congress “should shut up” about abusive racial and religious profiling by ICE and the Border Patrol in the Trump Era ignores the basic constitutional structure of the United States in which Congress and the courts serve as a check on the President and the executive departments. Authoritarian regimes demand that legislators “shut up.” In democracies, we encourage people to speak up when they see wrongs being done. “If you see something say something” does not just apply to suitcases left on trains.
In his speech, Kelly said nothing about improving services for immigrants or promoting citizenship. He once again only described immigrants as threats to the United States. He bragged about the Department of Homeland Security going after mothers of children fleeing Central America in the same part of his speech where he discussed terrorism.
Kelly displayed disdain for Obama Era policies prioritizing immigrants with criminal records for deportation. He characterized all undocumented immigrants as “law breakers” slated for removal saying: “People who illegally cross our borders do not respect the laws of our nation. We want to get the law breakers off our streets, and out of the country, for the good of our communities.”
The Homeland Security Secretary promised to begin criminally prosecuting the parents of unaccompanied children fleeing gangs in Central America, saying that “We will…expand our approach to include the prosecution of anyone—including family members—that pay the traffickers especially when it involves children under the age of 18.”