The Pro-Guantánamo, Anti-Drug Views of General John Kelly, Trump's DHS Pick

In picking John Kelly, Donald Trump passed over more obvious choices in favor of yet another retired general for his cabinet.
December 8, 2016, 8:30pm

After a campaign built on vows of mass deportations and a 2,000-foot border wall, Donald Trump made a surprising pick for his Department of Homeland Security secretary: John Kelly, a retired Marine general who has kept quiet about most elements of US immigration policy.

Kelly, 66, a Boston native who first joined the military in 1970, will be nominated by Trump next week, people close to the transition team told the Associated Press. The president-elect's press office did not immediately return VICE's requests for comment.


"Kelly is a wildcard. I don't think anybody knows what his immigration stance is," Edward Alden, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, told me, noting that Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, notorious for his anti-immigration platform, would have been a more obvious selection. "I find it an interesting appointment, and I find it really interesting that Trump didn't go for a real immigration hardliner like Kris Kobach if his priority had been deportations and cracking down on day one."

Kelly is a four-star general who served three tours in Iraq and spent the last four years of his military career as the commander of the US Southern Command, a joint operation in charge of security throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. He has emphasized working with the region—and providing human rights education and aid—rather than simply building a border wall, as Trump has proposed. The Department of Homeland Security, the third-largest federal agency, has responsibilities ranging from immigrant integration to the Coast Guard.

Military officials very rarely comment on matters of policy, so unsurprisingly Kelly hasn't spoken out about the nation's undocumented population or about immigration reform, but he does have significant experience with southern border enforcement and security—which immigration experts on both sides of the aisle say could help his DHS work.

"We have a right to protect our borders, whether they're seaward, coastlines, or land borders," Kelly told the Military Times in November, nine months after retiring. "We have a right to do that. Every country has a right to do that. Obviously, some form of control whether it's a wall or a fence. But if the countries where these migrants come from have reasonable levels of violence and reasonable levels of economic opportunity, then the people won't leave to come here."


Kelly is the third retired general Trump reportedly plans to appoint to a cabinet-level position, and like prospective defense secretary Jams Mattis, appears to disagree with his potential boss on some issues.

"Most nations in this part of the world want our partnership, our friendship, and our support… Some of my counterparts perceive that the United States is disengaging from the region and from the world in general," Kelly told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2014. "Reduced engagement could itself become a national security problem, with long-term, detrimental effects on US leadership, access, and interests in a part of the world where our engagement has made a real and lasting difference."

Kelly has supported aid packages to help combat violence in Central America as part of a vision that "involves much closer alliances than Trump" has signaled he wants in the area, Alden told me. Kelly has spoken in-depth about the security issues driving individuals to cross the US border from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

"He talks in particular about Central America and the lack of citizen security and violence and narco-trafficking and cartels, and he's connected it to why people are coming to the United States," Doris Meissner, director of the Migration Policy Institute's US Immigration Policy Program, told me. She thinks that Kelly seems "well qualified for the position" from his work in the Southern Command.


"Kelly has talked about Mexico's migration being at net zero because its economy has improved, so he seems to recognize the real challenges are from countries other than Mexico, which puts him somewhat at variance with what the president-elect was talking about," Meissner continued. "I hope he's a good source of advice on what our nation's real vulnerabilities are."

While Kelly supports work with nations in Latin America and the Caribbean, he is a hardliner on national security. He has advocated for further manpower, technology, and detention to protect the US, and in his latest position, he focused his fight on smuggling—of drugs, migrants, and potential terrorists—which he claimed was a serious national security threat.

"Clearly, criminal networks can move just about anything on these smuggling pipelines," Kelly told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2014, as he requested further funds to shut down the routes. "My concern, Mr. Chairman, is that many of these pipelines lead directly into the United States, representing a potential vulnerability that could be exploited by terrorist groups seeking to do us harm."

"I have never been prouder of any troops under my command than I am of the young military professionals who stand duty day and night at Guantánamo."
—John Kelly

Kelly has also championed the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center, seen by many as a symbol of human rights abuses and a black eye on America's reputation. The soldiers at the facility were under his authority when he ran the Southern Command

"I have never been prouder of any troops under my command than I am of the young military professionals who stand duty day and night at Guantánamo, serving under a microscope of public scrutiny in one of the toughest and most unforgiving military missions on the planet," he told Congress. "These young men and women are charged with caring for detainees that can often be defiant and violent."


Kelly remains committed to the America's decades-long war on drugs and advocates for a complete crackdown on illicit substance use, which he says would help end much of the region's crime.

"The solution there is for Americans to stop using drugs," Kelly told the Military Times last month, rejecting the idea that marijuana should be legal. "Now, you're never going to go to zero, but we've got great programs to convince Americans not to do things."

Neither drug policy nor Guantánamo were really campaign issues for Trump, however, and the immediate focus of the DHS will likely be immigration and immigrants. Hardliners have already issued calls to Kelly to take a tough stance on the undocumented population as a main priority.

"General Kelly's background provides assurance that he would be fully committed and experienced to protect the physical security of the American people. We will be looking for immediate signs that he will show the same commitment to enforcing the immigration laws passed by Congress to protect the economic security of American workers and their families," Roy Beck of the immigration organization NumbersUSA* said in a statement.

Kelly will likely follow their wishes: Jeff Sessions, Trump's pick for attorney general, has built his platform around immigration crackdowns, and may lead Kelly's policies, Alden told me. And with Kelly in office, "It's a given" that there will be further militarization of the border, Alden said.


Such a militarization is exactly what immigration from advocates are entreating Kelly to avoid. As soon as he was nominated, Democratic representatives John Conyers of Michigan and Zoe Lofgren of California issued a joint statement asking Kelly to enforce laws in a "practical, humane way."

"Concerns have been raised that General Kelly's appointment could contribute to a militarization of our nation's immigration system," they said in an emailed statement. "Immigrants are not the enemy. Rather, for generations, immigrants have flocked to our shores to build their dreams, and in turn they have grown our economy and enriched our country in numerous ways. I hope General Kelly understands this."

And Ken Gude, a senior fellow with the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress, told me he was bracing for the "over-militarization of our foreign and domestic policy," since this is the first time in modern history for the US to have three former generals in the top levels of civilian government.

But, for now, it is unclear exactly how Kelly—if he is confirmed by the Senate—will act on the wide range of DHS responsibilities.

"In this position in the DHS, he has to balance enforcement with immigration and integration responsibilities," Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, told me. "There's a world difference between a drug smuggler and families fleeing bombs, and DHS deals with both. That's a very clear example of the balance the new secretary of DHS needs to be able to strike."

An earlier version of this article referred to NumbersUSA as a "conservative" organization when in fact it is nonpartisan.

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