Following a campaign in which Donald Trump offended many immigrant communities with his harsh rhetoric and promise of a crackdown along the border with Mexico, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus hoped John F. Kelly would be an administration official with whom they could have a good working relationship.
Instead, the former homeland security secretary who now serves as White House chief of staff has become the subject of their ire and distrust after months of clashes.
“We all thought, we hoped we were going to get somebody who was going to be reasonable, rational, looking at the facts,” said Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.). Instead, she said, “we’ve seen more and more come out about who he really is.”
These tensions with Kelly, a retired four-star general, are surfacing again as Congress is poised for a year-end fight over whether to enact permanent legal protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants — known as "dreamers" — who were brought into the country as children.
Kelly is expected to be a key player in the upcoming negotiations, which have become intertwined with the need to pass a spending bill next month to keep the government from shutting down. Hispanic Caucus members are among the Democrats pushing most aggressively to withhold needed votes for the funding measure until a deal is solidified on the future of dreamers.
Heading into this debate, Latino lawmakers who once thought Kelly would be an honest broker in the administration consider him no different from other senior Trump officials who clearly favor stricter immigration enforcement at the expense of dreamers and their families.
“We want to trust him, we want to believe he’s a partner, but time and time again, he’s got a particular mind-set and he’s not willing to be open-minded, listen to our concerns and address them,” Rep. Linda T. Sánchez (D-Calif.) said. “That’s frustrating — we’re members of Congress, this affects our constituents deeply, and we’re a coequal branch of government.”
The tensions with Kelly started early this year when he was leading the Department of Homeland Security, with Latino Democrats describing him during public hearings and private meetings as patronizing, disingenuous and unwilling to concede facts when confronted with what they say was evidence that immigration officers may be overstepping bounds.
"A four-star general doesn't have very many people who are going to challenge him," said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.). "You could tell it was unusual for him to be challenged by people."
For members of the Hispanic Caucus, a House Homeland Security Committee hearing in February proved an early sign of the rough relationship ahead. Facing questions about Trump’s attempts to ban travelers from certain Muslim-majority nations, Kelly disputed accounts by Barragán, who recalled the “chaos” she witnessed at Los Angeles International Airport the night Trump issued his travel orders.
At the airport, “I asked to speak with somebody at [U.S. Customs and Border Protection]. Conveniently, the office was shut down,” Barragán told Kelly. She added later that CBP officers instructed her “to call a 202 Washington number. And then I was hung up on. How are we to know that there was no chaos down there if members of Congress couldn’t see it themselves?”
“You can take my word for it,” Kelly told her, adding later: “This is normal everyday operations in any airport in the United States. There was no chaos.”
Months later, Barragán still insists that constituents conveyed reports of people arriving on international fights being detained with no explanation.
“It’s offensive when a secretary sits in front of you and lies to you,” she said.
Tensions flared again in March, when Kelly appeared at a closed-door meeting of House Democrats. Rep. J. Louis Correa (D-Calif.) asked Kelly about concerns that CBP vehicles had been spotted in the parking lot of Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. A Catholic bishop wrote to CBP about the vehicles but had not received a response.
Kelly disputed Correa’s accusations, so the lawmaker brandished two oversize photos of the CBP vehicles taken by a churchgoer, according to lawmakers, aides and administration officials in the room. Kelly continued to dispute Correa’s claims but eventually agreed to follow up. A few weeks later, CBP explained in writing that the agents had been attending a funeral at the cathedral.
It was all a misunderstanding. Months later, Correa said he wishes it had been resolved faster.
Kelly declined to comment for this report, but administration officials defended his interactions, noting he has been more available to lawmakers than his Democratic-appointed predecessors.
“During his time at DHS, Secretary Kelly was not shy about defending the honorable women and men of the Department of Homeland Security — who every day enforce the laws Congress has adopted — against invalid and politically driven criticism,” Jonathan Hoffman, the DHS assistant secretary for public affairs, said in an email.
Raj Shah, principal deputy White House press secretary, added that it is “disappointing that a few members of Congress showed such disdain for the men and women who enforce the law, defend our borders and ensure our security.”
Tensions over dreamers arose during a July meeting in a drab Cannon House Office Building conference room. It occurred two weeks after Kelly appeared alongside Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to endorse legislation to penalize “sanctuary” cities that refuse to assist federal immigration agents and to stiffen penalties for convicted and deported criminals who illegally reenter the country.
Democrats wanted to know why Kelly wouldn’t endorse bipartisan bills to protect dreamers.
“Kelly had told us that he was the best friend and best protection that dreamers have,” recalled Sánchez.
Caucus members said they had spoken with Kelly previously about two bipartisan bills that would grant legal protections to dreamers.
During the meeting, Kelly said that dreamers were “good kids, I support them,” Barragán recalled. But when she asked if he would support their legislation, “He stood there in complete silence,” she said, before telling the group, “I’m unaware of any such legislation.”
Democrats in the room gasped — some laughed out loud in disbelief — and at least one member shouted, “Are you serious?” according to people in attendance. They promised to send him more details, but within days Kelly was headed to his new position at the White House. They never heard back.
Kelly has faced criticism in recent weeks for defending Trump by questioning the motives of Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) after she blasted the president's interactions with a military widow; suggesting that the Civil War began over a failure to compromise; and pressuring his DHS successor to expel tens of thousands of Honduran immigrants.
Hispanic Caucus members said none of this surprised them.
"We warned people," said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). "We people of color usually catch on to this stuff before anyone else."
Latino lawmakers say they are now focused on building support for a permanent solution for dreamers. Moderate Democrats and Republicans huddled again in recent days and agreed to work together to convince Ryan to resolve the situation in the coming weeks.
Trump forced the issue in September, when he announced the end of an Obama-era program — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — that grants temporary status to hundreds of thousands of dreamers. The White House is pushing Congress to enact a permanent solution for dreamers by a March deadline. Trump wants any solution for dreamers to be paired with changes in border security policy and has told GOP lawmakers that he doesn’t want to see it resolved in any year-end must-pass legislation that sets government spending.
Latino lawmakers said they will use any leverage they can to get a deal done.
“Every single day that goes by, you increase the risk to the community that deserves our absolute energy and attention,” said Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), who chairs the Hispanic Caucus. “You’ll see revised intensity to get a vote in the next couple of weeks.”