WASHINGTON — When President Trump announced he’d picked former Marine Gen. John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security, most Democrats breathed a sigh of relief. But his actions in office have left them gasping.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) was one of 36 Senate Democrats to vote for Kelly’s confirmation. The former Marine general had served under President Obama and was widely viewed as someone who would be the grownup in the room and hopefully stand up to some of the Trump White House’s worst impulses towards immigrants. Many thought Kelly was the best they could hope for in a Trump administration.
“The general impression that people like me had and others is he had a degree of competence and strength and may be more of a sober or constructive approach to these issues the President and White House folks might not have. They spent so much time in the campaign yelling and screaming about folks coming into this country that needed to be removed,” he told the Daily News in a Friday interview.
But Casey, like many Democrats, has grown increasingly uneasy as Kelly vigorously defends his Immigration & Customs Enforcement and Customs & Border Protection agents he oversees as they ramp up deportations on undocumented immigrants — even when they seem to have crossed the line.
ICE has arrested one third more undocumented immigrants from January through mid-March of this year, including 5,441 non-criminals — double the number of previous years.
Democrats are furious that instead of following their promise to target criminals, Trump’s administration — with Kelly in charge — is going after anyone in the country illegally. They’re not happy about Kelly’s full-throated defense of ICE and CBP — even as they arrest parents taking their kids to school and people willingly showing up to court appearances. They were especially irritated by his denial, contrary to the facts, that his agents have arrested “DREAMers” — undocumented immigrants brought here as children who Trump has said won’t be targets. One has even been deported.
Casey’s frustrations came to a head this week, when the normally reserved and soft-spoken senator found out a Honduran woman who says she became a target of gangs after witnessing a murder in her home country and her five-year-old son were being deported from his home state.
“We shouldn’t turn our back on a vulnerable 5yr old boy and his mother who may very well die if they get on that plane,” he tweeted Wednesday, part of a long serious of tweets, calls and emails demanding information about the pair and asking why they were being forced out of the country.
Casey says he couldn’t get Kelly on the phone throughout the day. When they did finally connect the next day, after the pair had already been deported, Kelly didn’t express any remorse.
“He basically said what he said publicly, ‘we’re just enforcing the law, we got a court order, the law’s the law and we’re enforcing it, if you want to change the law you should,'” Casey said.
“He seemed to be just following orders,” he continued, expressing frustration that Kelly didn’t use any of the discretion he has under the law and accusing him of having a “jaundiced view” towards asylum-seekers, assuming most are lying about their story to try and stay in the U.S. “You’re sending them back into a hellhole, a place of real grave and immediate danger.”
Kelly’s spokesmen didn’t respond to questions, but he took a swipe at Casey in a Thursday speech.
“I don’t, we don’t, deport people. The law deports people,” Kelly said. “I say it over and over again: If the laws are not good laws, then change them. Don’t call me, or Twitter or tweet, or go to the press with outrageous stories about how we do business or why we’re deporting someone.”
Democrats compliment Kelly on his overall accessibility, as he’s visited a number of them in their states and has sat in on a series of private meetings with senators concerned about how things are being run that were organized by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). But they’ve been increasingly frustrated by his view that the law is written to kick out undocumented immigrants — and that they have no place telling him what to do or criticizing his agents.
That’s a tone Kelly has repeatedly taken, in public and private, that’s gotten under Democrats’ skins.
“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,” he declared in a mid-April speech. “Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.”
Casey, a staid senator facing a tough reelection fight in a state Trump won, didn’t want to pass “categorical judgement” on Kelly yet. But others aren’t so reluctant.
“I’m extremely disappointed in Secretary Kelly,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who voted to confirm him in January, told Politico last week. “I have buyer’s remorse.”
Kelly has also flashed a short temper — he threatened to walk out of a meeting with Arab American leaders in Michigan organized by Democratic Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow when one participant repeatedly pressed him on racial profiling of those entering the country.
“I appreciate Secretary Kelly coming to Southeast Michigan to hear directly from the community about how the Administration’s policies are negatively impacting them and their families,” Peters said.