WASHINGTON — Donald Trump's choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security likes the idea of a wall to secure the border with Mexico but says technology and manpower are also a must.
"A physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job," retired Marine Gen. John Kelly told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee during a confirmation hearing Tuesday. "Certainly it has to be a layered approach."
The normally blunt-talking Marine walked a fine line in his answers to several questions about how Trump's Homeland Security Department will carry out its many varied missions, specifically efforts to find and deport immigrants living in the country illegally. He struck a balance between defending Trump's hard-line positions on immigration and border security, and the more moderate positions of some senators, especially Democrats.
Asked about the fate of young immigrants protected from deportation by President Barack Obama, Kelly told Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California that "the law would guide him" in every decision he will make if confirmed.
Kelly also said the agency doesn't appear to have a particularly efficient way to track visitors who have overstayed their visas and suggested it may be appropriate to "send someone to their house ... and ask them why they haven't departed."
Answering questions about his plans to secure the border, stop the flow of drugs and curb illegal border crossings, Kelly told lawmakers border security shouldn't only focus on the frontier with Mexico, but said "security of the border starts 1,500 miles south of the Rio Grande in the jungles of Latin America." He added that the U.S. should do more to curb demand for drugs in the United States and help stem the violence in a trio of Central American countries whose residents have been fleeing to the United States in recent years.
Kelly's confirmation is almost assured — a reality expressed by both Republican and Democratic senators Tuesday — but members of the committee nonetheless pressed him to specify his stances on immigration enforcement, border security and some of Trump's more controversial suggestions during the campaign, including the possibility of a registration system for Muslim immigrants.
Kelly told lawmakers he does not support registering people based on ethnicity or religion and said he didn't think religion should be a basis for counterterrorism or law enforcement operations.
"I don't think it's ever appropriate to focus on something like religion as the only factor," Kelly said.
He also said he accepts with "high confidence" reports from the intelligence community that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
Kelly said he did not anticipate that immigration enforcement officials would focus on young immigrants living in the country illegally who have been temporarily protected from deportation.
"There's a big spectrum of people who need to be dealt with," Kelly said. "Those categories would be prioritized. I would guess this category might not be the highest priority for removal."
He is one of several retired generals tapped for top positions by Trump. That has raised some concerns about undue military influence in his administration and weakening the American tradition of civilian control of government.
But Kelly is widely respected by Democrats and Republicans alike. As the former head of the military's Southern Command, based in South Florida, he routinely worked with the Department of Homeland Security to combat human trafficking and drug smuggling.
In a lengthy questionnaire sent to senators, Kelly said he is committed to telling "truth to power." The commitment addresses concerns that some lawmakers have about the president-elect's willingness to take in points of view that clash with his own.
"I never hesitated to disagree with any of them, or make difficult recommendations when appropriate," Kelly said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the panel's ranking Democrat, said his answer was "music to my ears" and promised that Kelly would hear from her often if she didn't think he was following through on the pledge.
Following Kelly's hearing McCaskill and committee chairman Ron Johnson of Wisconsin suggested Kelly could be confirmed with ease.
"I'm confident he will be a moderating influence on President-elect Trump and some of his more divisive rhetoric that he displayed during the campaign when it comes to immigration, and a Muslim ban and all the other things that were covered in the hearing today," McCaskill said.
Kelly joined the Marine Corps in 1970 and served three tours in Iraq. He was also the highest-ranking officer to lose a child in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. His son, Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed in November 2010 in Afghanistan.
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