On the same day that President-elect Donald Trump said he was trying to “work something out” for DREAMers set to lose their work permits when he discontinues the DACA program in 2017, Trump named his nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security. Trump’s nomination of Retired Major General John F. Kelly to head the vast Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has uncertain implications. The Secretary of DHS has enormous power over immigration. The Border Patrol, ICE, and the US Citizenship and Immigration Service all fall under his control. Kelly’s entire career has been in the military and most of his statements on immigration have been in its relation to national security.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last year, Kelly said that the border with Mexico may be used by terrorist groups to infiltrate fighters into the United States. He told the Senate:
“Despite the heroic efforts of our law enforcement colleagues, criminal organizations are constantly adapting their methods for trafficking across our borders…While there is not yet any indication that the criminal networks involved in human and drug trafficking are interested in supporting the efforts of terrorist groups, these networks could unwittingly, or even wittingly, facilitate the movement of terrorist operatives or weapons of mass destruction toward our borders.’’
While the general will be in charge of building Trump’s wall, Kelly will soon find out that DHS is about a lot more than border enforcement. The DHS issues nearly a million immigrant visas every year, processes tens of millions of temporary visas and vets hundreds of thousands of permanent residents applying for citizenship. General Kelly has no experience or record on any of these crucial components of his new job. The head of DHS is the single most important person, after the president, in setting and implementing immigration policy. While a military background is useful for the security aspect of the department’s work, the service component is equally important.
Unless DHS’s immigration service side functions properly, families will remain separated, tourism and business activity will be hampered, and refugees will languish. The Senate should question General John Kelly carefully about his plans for service improvement and how he will work to make the immigration process more welcoming for new immigrants. Forcing him to focus on the Citizenship and Immigration Service will hopefully prompt him to study an area of DHS that he may not have even been aware of. An “enforcement-first” approach will not work for someone holding America’s most important immigration job.