President-elect Donald Trump made immigration one of his top political priorities — promising to deport millions of people, build a wall across the southern U.S.-Mexico border, enact “extreme vetting” requirements for Muslim immigrants, and increase the number of immigration enforcement agents to round up “criminal” immigrants.
The person responsible for fulfilling these promises will be Gen. John Kelly, Trump’s choice to head up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
On Tuesday afternoon, a Senate panel will grill Kelly as the first step in confirming him to Trump’s cabinet. Kelly, who has admirers across party lines and who previously received unanimous Senate confirmation, is expected to be confirmed. If so, he will be responsible for overseeing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Compared to some of Trump’s other nominees, who don’t have much experience in government or in the policy areas they’re about to oversee, Kelly may be a good candidate for the position. Kelly has experience at the U.S. Southern Command, where he was in charge of military operations and assessing national security risks in South and Central America. He is also a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, which makes recommendations to the DHS Secretary.
Once he is confirmed, Kelly will face at least three major areas that will need his immediate attention.
Is Kelly prepared to deny asylum to Central American moms and kids fleeing gang violence?
Starting in December 2013, a steady stream of Latin American women and children began showing up at the southern U.S. border. Many of these people asked for humanitarian relief to prevent them from being returned to their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Considering the recent uptick in gang violence and drug cartel violence in the region — which has contributed to El Salvador’s high homicide rate — many of these mothers and children likely have valid claims for asylum.
Kelly’s background in South and Central America makes him fully aware of what these women and children are running away from.
During a Senate Armed Services committee hearing in 2015, Kelly argued for proposals to restrict the flow of immigrants across the southern U.S. border, but he also acknowledged these people were “fleeing violence, poverty, and the spreading influence of criminal networks and gangs.” And at the Atlantic Council in May of the same year, he acknowledged that the migration of unaccompanied children to the United States was happening in part because Central American parents “are trying to save their children” from the violence in their home countries.
President Obama has called the waves of children an “urgent humanitarian situation,” but has also been unwilling to address the situation as a “refugee” crisis — an admission that would carry a legal obligation to take in far more people than the United States has thus far admitted. Thus far, the Obama administration has apprehended 137,614 families and unaccompanied children in the 2016 fiscal year.
Is Kelly willing to take the expensive step of removing undocumented immigrants protected by the Obama administration?
Trump has been critical of the Obama administration’s executive action known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, which has granted temporary deportation relief and work authorization for 741,000 people. He has promised to undo it as soon as he’s in office.
If the president-elect does roll back DACA, Kelly would be in charge of the challenging task to revoke employment authorization cards from DACA workers. That could be a disaster for the workforce. A recent Center for American Progress study found that taking away DACA could reduce the cumulative U.S. GDP by $433.4 billion over the next ten years.
Can Kelly actually fulfill Trump’s ambitious pledge to deport 2 million immigrants on day one?
Trump has promised to immediately deport anywhere between 2 and 3 million “criminal” immigrants who are living in the country illegally. “We will begin moving them out day one,” Trump pledged at a campaign rally in August. “Day one, my first hour in office, those people are gone.”
But as Kelly will find out as DHS secretary, that timetable would actually take years and cost billions of dollars that his agency doesn’t have.
As it stands, immigrants facing deportation and idling in detention centers undergo a lengthy wait time to get a court appearance during their removal proceedings. There are currently 526,175 pending immigration cases waiting for adjudication, with 254 judges scrambling to address the current backlog. Wait times span into years, leaving thousands of immigrants in a state of legal limbo. Human Rights First, a human rights group, estimated that 524 judges are needed to eliminate the backlog within one year. Adding millions of immigrants to that caseload would set an unrealistic goal for them to be gone in Trump’s “first hour in office.”
What’s more, it costs the government about $12,213 for each deportation — roughly $24.4 billion for two million deportations — which is more than the current $19.4 billion budget that’s set for the ICE and CBP agencies over the entire 2016 fiscal year.