The lack of a border fence is “a gaping wound” in America’s defenses, newly minted Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly told Congress on Tuesday, promising to quickly erect walls in spots where the Border Patrol says a barrier is needed right now.
Mr. Kelly also promised lawmakers would see a marked jump in morale at his department, saying tens of thousands of immigration agents had been despondent after having their hands tied by the Obama administration, and are now eager to get back to enforcing the law — the job they were hired to do.
The retired Marine general, testifying to the House Homeland Security Committee, swatted aside complaints from lawmakers upset over the rhetoric of President Trump, saying he’s talked with agents on the ground who say there is a need for fencing.
“The people that work the border will tell you that physical barriers, backed up by men and women, is what we need to secure the southwest border,” Mr. Kelly said.
The secretary also promised a streamlined approach to speedier deportations of criminals and defended Mr. Trump’s new office designed to keep tabs on illegal immigrants held in local prisons and jails.
Mr. Kelly said victims and their families will be able to call the office to find out where things stand with the cases, and he also said it will help his agents when they want to go get the criminals.
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“You can bet that my people will be standing there when he is paroled to take him into custody and send him back to where he came from,” Mr. Kelly said.
He was peppered with complaints from both Democrats and Republicans, particularly those from Texas, who said the border between Mexico and their state already has physical barriers, such as the Rio Grande.
They said Mr. Trump’s promise of a border wall angers their large trading partner in Mexico, would be prohibitively costly and isn’t needed in many places.
“Has somebody at CBP told you that we need a 2,000-mile wall built along that border?” said Rep. Filemon Vela, Texas Democrat.
Other lawmakers said they never took Mr. Trump’s proposal for a wall as literal.
“I think it’s actually symbolic,” said Rep. Michael T. McCaul, chairman of the committee and a Texas Republican who has put years of work into studying the pathways used to penetrate the U.S. border.
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Mr. Kelly, though, said he’s listening to the agents on the ground.
“I would argue that we should look at the entire border and where it makes sense,” he said. “Maybe there are some places that are too rugged to put a wall, and we cover that with the patrolling and technology.”
On employee morale, Mr. Kelly said he saw “frustration” from his staffers over the Obama administration’s orders and actions tying agents’ hands.
Among those actions were policies requiring agents to release illegal immigrants who didn’t meet President Obama’s priorities for deportation, which required either a serious criminal record or a recent border crossing.
“I think their morale has suffered because of the job they were hired to do, and then in their sense, they’re kind of hobbled or, you know, hands tied behind their back, that kind of thing,” the new secretary said. “And now they feel more positive about things. I bet if you watch the morale issue, you’ll be surprised going forward.”