© Greg Nash
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly got an earful on Friday from House Democrats outraged over President Trump’s aggressive approach to immigration enforcement.
Kelly met with the Democrats in the Capitol, where the lawmakers — particularly members of the Congressional Hispanic and Asian Pacific caucuses — sounded off against Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants and his executive orders barring refugees and travelers from six Muslim-majority countries.
Democrats questioned Kelly's handling of his department, particularly his ability to keep immigration enforcement agents in check. They were left unconvinced by his responses.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) called Kelly's approach "naive," saying law enforcement agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lacked the military discipline Kelly had grown accustomed to in the Marine Corps.
Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) doubled down on the fish-out-of-water criticism of Kelly, saying the secretary had at times "been dismissive" of lawmakers at the meeting "as though they were plebes or cadets."
"This is not bootcamp. These are not newly inducted members of the Marine Corps. These are experienced lawmakers who understand the law, who understand the complexities of the law and also understand the job that the secretary has to carry out the law," said Crowley.
Lawmakers also criticized Kelly for failing to provide specific policy answers when challenged.
"Secretary Kelly's answers were less than satisfactory. They were not very deep — they were sort of topline, general platitudes," said Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), vice chair of the Democratic Caucus.
Kelly, for his part, said he’s simply upholding the law, according to a source in the room. But he also emphasized that he opposes many parts of the law, pleading with the Democrats to change it.
“If you don't like the laws we are enforcing, and I don't like many of them, please, please, please change the law,” he said, according to the source.
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, led the charge for the Democrats, accusing the administration of disregarding due process protections and instilling fear in immigrant communities, according to the source.
Lujan Grisham said some progress was made at the meeting, citing Kelly's openness to equip ICE agents with body cameras, as proposed in a bill introduced by Rep. Yvette Clark (D-N.Y.) last week.
But Kelly said the agency did not have the money to move forward with the body cameras, an idea Democrats scoffed at.
"He mentioned that they just don't have the budget. We pushed back on that a bit," Lujan Grisham said.
She’s been up in arms since last month, when several Hispanic Democrats were barred from a briefing by officials at the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) branch.
Kelly did not back down, according to the source, saying he’s taken a “different philosophical” tack than his predecessor, Jeh Johnson, when it comes to border security.
When Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Congress’s first Chinese-American lawmaker, raised concerns that racial bias has been a factor underlying deportations, Kelly rebuffed the suggestion.
"I reject just about everything you said about my people acting [with] prejudices and biases,” he said, according to the source.
"In every issue, there has been legal issues that they did what they did. But it's not because their religion or the color of their skin or their politics. … I don't report anyone, ICE doesn't deport anyone, the laws and the judges of the United States does. ... The Department of Homeland Security does not deport anyone."
Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) took a different tone, saying Kelly's demeanor left him hopeful.
"That same pushback that everyone got and didn't like, I think he does that same pushback to the administration when it comes to DACA kids and others. Even though he was general-like in his demeanor and his attitude, that can be a very positive thing," said Vargas.
The Democrats are concerned that the administration’s new deportation approach leaves those benefitting from former President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program newly vulnerable to deportations.
They're especially worried that the information DACA applicants voluntarily provided to enroll in the program — it includes an admission of being in the country illegally — could be used against them.
Kelly told lawmakers DACA information was not being used that way at the moment, but attendants to the meeting said he did not rule out the information could be used in the future.
Rep. Nannette Barragan (D-Calif.) said she believed Kelly had "left the door open" to using DACA application information for immigration enforcement purposes.
"For him to go out of his way to say, ‘We believe we could use that information but we're not,' " said Barragan.
But Kelly suggested the “dreamers” are still protected — as long as he’s in charge.
”I’m the best thing that happened to DACA,” he said, according to the source. “It is still on the books."
- Updated at 3:25 p.m.