5 Reasons to Fear That John Kelly Will Be Trump’s Ruthless Enforcer-in-Chief of a Refugee Crackdown
by Naureen Shah Senior Director of Campaigns at Amnesty International USA
After day one of his new job as President Trump’s chief of staff, media are reporting that John Kelly is already cleaning up house. Major outlets report that Kelly requested Anthony Scaramucci’s firing as White House communications chief. Many are calling him the “adult at the table,” the general who will bring discipline and focus to a White House in disarray.
That’s missing the point. If Kelly is as effective as he is rumored to be, his new role could spell this: An even more aggressive crackdown on refugees, and closing of U.S. borders to those fleeing violence.
In the last six months, Kelly has appeared to be fully committed to carrying out Trump’s agenda — at any cost. While many had hopes that Kelly would be a moderating influence — he’s previously shown a real understanding of the violence facing Central Americans — in many respects, that hasn’t happened.
Instead, Kelly has often appeared to use his aesthetic of respectability to evade criticism and put Trump’s ruthless anti-refugee, anti-immigrant agenda into action — at as full tilt as Congress will permit.
Here’s five things you should know about Kelly’s record in the Trump administration so far– and why he should use his new role as chief of staff to change Trump’s ruthless agenda on refugees, not blindly enforce it.
Take action: Tell Congress Not to Hand John Kelly a Blank Check to Enforce Trump’s Ruthless Refugee Crackdown.
1. Threatening to Pull Kids Apart from Their Moms and Dads
As DHS Secretary, Kelly has attempted to follow through on some of President Trump’s worst rhetoric vilifying people crossing the border — including children and families fleeing violence and seeking safety here because their lives are in danger.
On CNN, Kelly threatened to separate families when they crossed the southern border — effectively pulling children apart from their moms and dads and putting them into government-sponsored care — and their parents into detention centers. Kelly said it was “in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network . . . They will be well cared for as we deal with their parents.”
He only backed down after outcry from rights groups including Amnesty International.
2. Suggesting That People Who Are Running for Their Lives Deserve Our Suspicion — Not Our Compassion
Kelly has not just gone along with Trump’s agenda to criminalize people seeking asylum — he’s been trying to sell Congress on getting billions to fund it.
This spring, the Trump administration asked Congress for $4.5 billion to fund its abusive immigration enforcement agenda, including $1.5 billion for expanded immigration detention and removal. But the U.S. already operates the world’s largest immigration detention system at a cost of $2 billion annually.
How could billions more be justified? By sleight of hand. In June, Kelly testified before Congress in support of Trump’s budget request, telling senators that mothers and children seeking safety in the United States are bringing violent crime into the country. In other words, they deserve our suspicion, not our compassion.
That’s totally upside down. These families are running from the extreme violence and threat of death created by MS-13 and other gangs in the Northern Triangle —
not looking to join it. To argue otherwise demonstrates the cruelty and indifference of the budget proposal.
3. Telling Congress to Shut Up
In April, Kelly told Congress to “shut up” and assume the agency is acting appropriately and following the law.
Kelly’s view of executive authority seems to be that if you have it, Congress should just assume you’re using it appropriately — and not do its job of oversight. That could be a harbinger of things to come, and it’s especially worrying given the issues Kelly was talking about. One of them is the actions of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which has a serious record of abuses.
Under Kelly, problems with CBP have continued. Among them: People who cross the U.S.-Mexico border seeking safety from violence in their home countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, are following U.S. law by presenting themselves at a port of entry — and are being turned back by CBP agents.
They are forced to wait for an opportunity to ask for entry again or find another way to cross the border. Cartels and gangs prey upon immigrants waiting to enter the U.S., leaving them vulnerable to kidnapping and sexual assault. Instead of deterring people from making a dangerous journey, under Kelly, DHS has placed them in greater jeopardy. Instead of swiping at his critics, Kelly should be acknowledging these real problems. His failure to do so is deeply troubling.
4. Defending the Refugee Ban
Either Kelly is indifferent to the impact of Trump’s refugee ban, or he doesn’t get it. Back in February, he told Congress that the 120-day ban on refugees from all over the world wouldn’t put a real hardship on refugees who have “already been waiting a year or two” to find safety in the United States. He went along with the Trump administration’s efforts to downplay the ban as a “pause.”
In fact, tens of thousands of refugees already being processed to come to the United States are now in limbo, their lives at risk, thanks to the Trump administration’s narrow interpretation of an interim ruling by the Supreme Court in the Muslim and refugee ban litigation. Read more.
Many refugees, including the thousands of Christian refugees from Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burma — that resettle each year in the US, will be shut out due to this arbitrary interpretation. That includes orphaned children who are in perilous circumstances.
5. Unleashing Trump’s Worst Impulses — and Executive Orders
Instead of using his power as a cabinet member to turn Trump away from his most egregious impulses, Kelly has prioritized unleashing them. In January, Trump signed executive orders that authorize, among other cruel policies, the mandatory detention of anyone who enters the country without documentation — including families seeking asylum and other asylum seekers, and measures that criminalize immigration and dramatically broaden the definition of who will be prioritized for deportation. Enforcement of these orders will lead to human rights violations.
Every person has the human right to seek asylum and not to be returned to a country where he or she would be tortured (“non-refoulement”). U.S. law itself guarantees that right. The abusive enforcement agenda that Kelly put into practice undermines both the right to seek asylum and non-refoulement and will lead to violations of human rights. Instead of protecting people seeking safety, these policies place them in greater jeopardy.
What next? Congress must act — and hear from people like you. Over the next several weeks, as members of Congress enjoy their “August recess” and leave D.C. for their home states, Amnesty International members will be pounding the pavement and visiting their home offices. We’ll be urging Congress not to hand Trump and Kelly a blank check to carry out their ruthless agenda on refugees, including locking up people who’ve fled violence. Find out how to join us here.
Denise Bell, Senior Campaigner on Refugees at Amnesty International USA, also contributed to this blog.