Immigrant-rights groups were left steaming after Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly said most of the illegal immigrant children who streamed into the U.S. in recent years were “a huge scam,” abusing lax policies to gain a foothold here.
Mr. Kelly also said the families in Central America and here in the U.S. who orchestrated the dangerous journeys were guilty of “human trafficking” of their own children.
“Their families are actually involved in human trafficking at this point,” the tough-talking retired Marine general told the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, suggesting that the families are abusing the generosity of U.S. laws and having the tab for part of the children’s trip picked up by American taxpayers.
He was tapping into a fierce debate between security advocates and immigrant-rights activists in recent years.
The activists argue that most of the children are fleeing horrific conditions in Central America and deserve some sort of refugee protection in the U.S., while top Homeland Security officials in both the Obama and Trump administrations have said the children are being enticed by lax policies, hoping to reconnect them with family already in the U.S. — usually here illegally themselves.
Each side points to research backing up its numbers.
But Mr. Kelly’s comments seemed like particular fuel for the fire, with activists saying he was doing a disservice to those making the perilous crossing.
“When Gen. Kelly was nominated to head DHS, we had hope that he would bring intelligence, balance and discipline to his new job. Unfortunately, our hopes have been dashed,” said Frank Sharry, executive director at America’s Voice. “He has turned out to be an expert at throwing sand in the faces of Congress and the public, good at defending his undisciplined agents, and excellent at advancing Trump’s mass deportation strategy.”
Nearly 230,000 illegal immigrant minors have been apprehended by the Border Patrol since the beginning of fiscal 2013. Under U.S. law most of them are to be processed and released to social workers at the Health and Human Services Department, which them places them with relatives or other sponsors.
Some abuses have been reported, including parents who sent their children to become child labor for criminals. And authorities say the older male children, who make up the largest segment of the population, are prime recruits for MS-13 and other heavily Hispanic criminal gangs.
Sen. John Hoeven, North Dakota Republican, pressed Mr. Kelly to have his department notify local authorities when the children are released into communities so police can try to keep an eye on them and keep them from joining gangs.
Mr. Kelly promised to look into it, but acknowledged the difficulty of the situation, suggesting most of the children taking advantage of the system.
“This is a huge scam. Most of them know exactly what they’re doing. They come across, they identify themselves, the people that traffic them up there, their families are actually involved in human trafficking at this point,” he said.
He continued: “They’ll send them up, we turn them over to HHS, they usually have in their pocket the name, phone number, address, of their mom or uncle, someone who’s already here. And then we, HHS, will do some initial vetting of the family, but if it is the mom or relative or something they will be turned over at our expense.”
The secretary said there has been a marked drop in the number of unaccompanied minors, with fewer than 1,000 apprehensions recorded in April — the lowest total in at least five years — suggesting this administration’s get-tough approach has worked to stem the flow.
Mr. Kelly spent much of last week on Capitol Hill defending the Trump administration’s new budget, which calls for more money for that get-tough immigration approach.
Along the way he took some jabs from Democrats who said he’s shown sharp elbows.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, Texas Democrat, took issue with Mr. Kelly telling congressional critics who were carping about his department’s enforcement of the laws to either change the statutes or “shut up.”
“My only advice is understand the system that we’re in — the executive branch and sometimes some of us might disagree with you. I don’t think it’s correct for you to tell members of Congress to shut up,” he said. “Otherwise it’s going to be a long term for you if you do that, and I think you did that within 90 days after you got sworn in.”
Mr. Kelly responded that his remarks grew out of frustration with the tenor of criticism, which has seen Democrats on Capitol Hill accuse his agents and officers of being “Nazis” or showing “prejudice” in the way they do their jobs.
The former general said he never saw that vitriol aimed at his troops, but says it’s routine in his new job.
“Criticize me, criticize the Trump policies, but please recognize that my men and women are doing the same kind of thing day in and day out as our military men and women are,” Mr. Kelly said. “Give them a break.”
Mr. Cuellar said “nobody’s attacked the men and women.”
But some of his colleagues have been harsh in their criticism.
Rep. Jared Polis called out a “rogue” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent by name in March, after agents targeted an illegal immigrant woman for deportation.
The woman had two misdemeanor convictions on her record, and had been ordered removed by an immigration judge, though the Obama administration had allowed her to stay, according to news reports out of Colorado.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, staged a sit-in in March at a regional ICE office in Chicago, saying the agency was spreading “fear in immigrant communities.”