Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly sounded a loud alarm Tuesday over an “unprecedented spike in terrorist travel” including to the U.S., moving to shore up the defense of the administration’s travel ban one day after President Trump’s tweets seemed to undercut his case before the Supreme Court.
The threat from terrorist “foot soldiers” is as great as ever, he said, and they are returning from training in Iraq and Syria home to Europe with orders to attack. Mr. Kelly said he expects some will try to reach the U.S. — but his hands have been tied by the federal courts.
The secretary dismissed accusations that Mr. Trump’s latest travel ban executive order discriminates against a religion, saying the president was relying on lists drawn up by Congress and the Obama administration to single out six countries for a 90-day halt.
“These are countries that are either unable or unwilling to help us validate the identities and backgrounds of persons within their borders,” he told the Senate Homeland Security Committee. “Bottom line, I have been enjoined from doing these things that I know would make America safe, and I anxiously await the court to complete its action, one way or the other, so I can get to work.”
He said he is “changing the culture” at the immigration services, which has a reputation for permissiveness, and reminding officials there that they are on a first line of defense to keep out potential terrorists.
“Rather than the idea of bringing as many refugees as you can to meet some number set by the last administration, or bring in, you know, as many visas as you can, we actually, now, are changing the culture to say, ‘Look, if you want to come to America, you convince me you are who you are and you’re coming here for a period of time, and then you’ll go home, and you won’t do anything wrong when you’re here,’” he said.
He warned that Americans will likely feel some pain as he stiffens defenses. That includes having cellphones searched — and perhaps even copied — by border guards, in a tiny fraction of cases. It also means states need to quickly comply with the 2005 Real ID law that sets federal standards for valid IDs.
Officials in the handful of states that are still struggling to comply with the law will have to tell residents that their IDs will no longer be valid for boarding airplanes, Mr. Kelly said, as the U.S. tries to fend off another 9/11-style airplane attack.
“For those states and territories that cannot or will not make the January 2018 deadline, they should encourage now their citizens to acquire other forms of ID compliant with the Real ID law,” he said.
Passports are one option, though senators said they feared a run at the State Department this summer could leave some travelers in the lurch when the January deadline hits.
Mr. Kelly has become the focal point for many of the attacks on the Trump administration, having overseen a complete change in immigration policy.
Apprehensions at the border — an indicator of overall attempts to sneak in from Mexico — are down dramatically, in a massive measure of early success.
But a spike in arrests inside the U.S., including of rank-and-file illegal immigrants whom the Obama administration allowed to stay, defying judges’ deportation orders, has Democrats on Capitol Hill furious.
Mr. Kelly, a retired Marine general, said he is enforcing the laws Congress has written. That goes for Real ID, for immigration, and for humanitarian programs such as the Temporary Protected Status designation that lets illegal immigrants from countries hit hard by disasters remain in the U.S.
The secretary said as many as 400,000 people are here under TPS, working legally and without fear of deportation. Some of those date back nearly two decades, to earthquakes and hurricanes that struck Central America in the 1990s, while more recent declarations include the 2010 Haiti earthquake and violence in Syria and Yemen over the past year.
Mr. Kelly said administrations for years have automatically extended TPS without looking to see what’s needed. He said he’s going to take a hard look at each country.
He said, however, that it could be difficult to root out those from Honduras who have been in the U.S. since the 1999 TPS declaration, or El Salvador since 2001. He said Congress may need to come up with a solution that gives them “a way towards citizenship.”
Mr. Kelly sounded grim about the chances for cutting off the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S., saying as long as there’s a demand, smuggling cartels will find a way to get the drugs in.
He said the solution isn’t along the border, but rather a permissive attitude inside the U.S. that needs to be combated at all levels.
“It’s not law enforcement, it’s Hollywood, it’s professional sports, college sports, the president of the United States, the Senate, everyone out there, the influencers,” he said.
In addition to enforcing the laws, Mr. Kelly said, he’s following court orders as scrupulously as possible.
He said that after a judge in Hawaii issued a broad injunction against Mr. Trump’s travel ban, the Homeland Security Department stopped most work, including some efforts to improve vetting.
“I learned very early on, if there’s a perception that we’re not executing the law, then a lot of people get agitated and call,” he said.
Mr. Trump’s current proposed travel ban would create a 90-day halt on many admissions from six terrorist-connected countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The current executive order, issued in March, also imposes a 120-pause on admission of refugees.
Courts have blocked both parts of the order.
Senators from both parties said they wanted Mr. Kelly to go as far as he could in improving U.S. vetting. Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said she didn’t read the Hawaii judge’s order to be as restrictive as the administration is treating it.
“I can’t imagine anybody is going to argue with you about the fact that you should be preparing policies that will keep this country safe,” she said, adding that there’s been enough time to improve screening so that the 90-day pause might not even be needed.
Mr. Kelly ticked off a list of areas where he’s made changes, including automated screening and enhanced capture of biometric data of arriving visitors.
“We haven’t stopped. We’re just being, as I say, very, very cautious about not getting out in front of the courts,” the secretary said.