Bristling at the intense criticism his agents are getting over enforcing immigration laws, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly told the gripers Tuesday to “shut up,” and demanded they stop questioning the patriotism and professionalism of his workforce.
Mr. Kelly said he’s fed up with calls from lawmakers complaining that his officers are unfairly targeting airline passengers because of their race or religion, and with chiding from advocacy groups that are upset he’s unleashed his agents to enforce the laws on the books on everything from marijuana to immigration.
“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. Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines,” Mr. Kelly said in a speech Tuesday at George Washington University, where he laid out priorities for the sprawling department he took over three months ago.
Homeland Security has ranked, in recent years, at the back of the pack in terms of federal employee morale, and has struggled to find a unified mission among its various agencies, which handle everything from immigration to cybersecurity, and disaster response to tracking child pornographers. The department also oversees the Coast Guard and the Secret Service.
But it’s the immigration and border missions that have drawn the most focus in the early part of the Trump administration.
Mr. Kelly said the Obama administration “discouraged” Homeland Security employees from doing their jobs, tying federal workers’ hands with bureaucracy and “politically meddling.” He said he and President Trump have made a decision to free up agents to enforce the laws as written, and he said he and his department won’t apologize for that.
Agents say their morale has already improved dramatically under Mr. Kelly, and the numbers at the border show illegal immigration is already way down.
Activists, though, say that to achieve those results Mr. Kelly and Mr. Trump have sent agents after rank-and-file illegal immigrants who don’t have serious criminal records.
Mr. Kelly’s challenge Tuesday to “shut up” also didn’t sit well with the advocates.
“We get it. You’re trying to improve morale and stand behind your agents. But those agents you’re standing behind are nothing like the Marines you once commanded,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, who called immigration agents “notorious for their lack of discipline, roguish behavior, and desire to go after the easy prey in order to make their statistics look good.”
Mr. Sharry said he still holds out hope that Mr. Kelly will “see the light,” reject the Trump immigration agenda and return to President Obama’s priorities-based system that left the vast majority of illegal immigrants without reason to fear deportation.
Mr. Kelly has said his agents do set priorities, but said illegal immigration must be discouraged.
The new secretary also defended his airport officers, saying he’s been surprised by the myriad of calls he’s fielded from members of Congress complaining that they’d heard someone had been detained at an airport because of their religion or skin color.
“It’s absolutely not true. We do it for a reason. You should applaud those men and women for doing what they do,” he said.
“Believe me, it’s not because of their skin color, it’s not because of the part of the country they come from, it’s not because of their religion,” he said. “There’s always, always, always more to the story.”