By Ted Hesson and Seung Min Kim
March 29, 2017
Senate Democrats met with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on Wednesday to seek reassurances that there would be boundaries to President Donald Trump’s plan to intensify immigration enforcement.
In some cases, Kelly delivered. The former Marine general told senators that border agents would not separate mothers and children at the border, unless a mother was sick or injured. He also said his department would not target enrollees in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, which grants deportation relief to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. at a young age.
But an undercurrent of frustration ran through the meeting, according to interviews with roughly half the more than 20 senators in attendance.
Privately, Kelly sought to mollify senators who have for weeks been outraged by the Trump administration’s hard-edged immigration policies. During the meeting at the Capitol, which lasted nearly two hours, the DHS secretary told Democrats that the administration was still mainly targeting for deportation those who had committed crimes, and that they didn’t even have the manpower to deport all undocumented immigrants in the country, according to one senator.
Several Democrats weren’t convinced, including Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey. “Basically, even though the secretary portrays that we’re only going after the bad apples, and criminals and this and that, the reality is — I pointed out to him — that his new memo on priorities makes everybody technically eligible for deportation,” Menendez said in an interview after the meeting. “He didn’t deny that.”
“Frustration would be a good word,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “He stated that he was not separating children from their parents, but that’s not been our experience.” On the topic of keeping families together, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said, “He didn’t guarantee it.”
Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Kelly generally affirmed his positions on families at the border and DACA enrollees. He also called on members of Congress to change laws if they don’t agree with them. “They may not like what I have to say, in terms of how we’re doing business, but they deserve as elected representatives of the people to hear what I have to say,” he said. “Honest men and women should be able to disagree on a lot of things and we do.”
Of the DACA program, Kelly said both the government and individuals have an obligation to honor the terms of the policy. “The DACA status is a commitment, not only by the government towards the DACA person, or the so-called Dreamer, but by that person to obey the law,” Kelly said. “I don’t care what you read, or what people say, we have not, in my time picked up someone who was covered by DACA. We have not done that.”
Since Trump took office, though, several current or former DACA recipients have been arrested by federal immigration authorities, including a 24-year-old man in the Seattle area who was released on bail by an immigration judge Wednesday. Federal immigration officers contend he admitted to membership in a gang once they encountered him.
The news from Kelly seemed to placate some Democrats, if not win them over entirely. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he “breathed a little sigh of relief” at Kelly’s DACA stance, which he said “was the policy of the Obama administration, too.” Durbin said the program “is still very much alive” — and credited Kelly for it.
“Many people would have doubted that that ever would be the case, and I think he is one of the major reasons for it,” Durbin said.
At the meeting, Kelly spoke of the importance of addressing the factors that drive migrants north from Central American countries, such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. He said the administration plans to organize a conference in Miami before the summer with presidents and business leaders from those countries to discuss ways to improve social and economic conditions in the region.
Kelly said Mexico wants to co-host the event and that Canada and Colombia would attend as observers. “We’re trying to improve the state of life in the Central American republics so those people don’t have to come up here,” he said.
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