In a testy first meeting with congressional Democrats Friday, an unrepentant Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly said immigration agents would stay away from churches, hospitals and schools but would continue to enforce federal law.
Democrats grilled Kelly for an hour in a packed, closed-door meeting at the Capitol that aides said at times devolved into shouting, exasperating the secretary, a former Marine general, who blurted, “give me a break,” according to two people in the room.
Democratic caucus chair Rep. Joseph Crowley, who aides said banged his gavel several times to restore order, said afterward that Kelly was “dismissive” of members’ questions, seeming to treat them like the Marines he once led.
“This is not boot camp,” Crowley said at a news conference. “This is not newly inducted members of the Marine corps. These are experienced lawmakers who understand the law.”
Through a spokesman, Kelly said he told House Democrats that criminals are the administration’s priority for deportation, and that immigration agents are not raiding sensitive locations, such as churches. He said they also are not targeting young immigrants protected under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.
“He was asked about DACA information potentially being used later, and he said it possibly could be, but he wouldn’t do that,” said Homeland Security spokesman David Lapan.
But Kelly also said he is considering separating parents and children who cross the border illegally — detaining the parents and placing children with relatives or a form of foster care, Lapan said. Kelly said he has not done that yet.
Lapan said the administration’s goal in warning that families could be divided is to deter immigrants from making the illegal journey, where women have been sexually assaulted and men are recruited into the drug cartels.
“I wouldn’t call it dismissive, but he also just didn’t accept everything that they were putting forward,” Lapan said of the session with Democrats. “His point is, ‘what can we do, how can we stop people from making this dangerous journey?’ ”
Kelly said his agency would detain and deport immigrants coming to America illegally to work. Those with a genuine fear for their lives, he said, will have a chance for a “credible fear” interview to see if they qualify for asylum, according to accounts given by Lapan and lawmakers.
The wide-ranging meeting with about half the 193 Democrats in Congress also focused on Trump’s plans to build a border wall, and the fear rippling through communities from Virginia to California, where agents are rounding up undocumented immigrants — and not just the criminals Trump said would be his priority.
Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Ca.), the vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, said that despite Kelly’s statements, she and other members are receiving reports that immigration agents are going to sensitive places, such as churches. She worried that Homeland Security is not keeping close track of agents in the field.
”He did attempt to answer certain questions in a thoughtful way, but still many, many questions remain,” she said.
Sánchez also said House Democrats have repeatedly written to Kelly but have not heard back, something she said she hasn’t seen in 15 years on the Hill.
“We feel like we are sending letters into a black hole,” she said.
Rep. Nanette Barragan (D-Ca.), a member of the Homeland Security committee, and others challenged Kelly over Trump’s plans to build the border wall with Mexico.
“Every member of Congress who’s read classified briefings knows that the number-one terror threat is not coming through that south border wall,” she said after the meeting. “I said, look, what is the justification from taking away money from TSA and the Coast Guard, where there is a much bigger threat of terrorism, to plan out that south border wall? And I didn’t really get an answer.”