What the Cabinet Hearings Say About Trump's Immigration Policy

Donald Trump’s picks for attorney general and homeland security offered a hazy glimpse into the future.

by John Surico
Jan 12 2017, 5:00am

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

All presidents, whether they want to or not, create an ideology—if not intentionally, then somewhat haphazardly as they appoint officials and promote policies. Donald Trump, who split from the larger GOP during the campaign on issues from free trade to Russia, is no different, and you could see the form Trumpism is beginning to take in the Senate cabinet confirmation hearings being held this week. These hearings represent the first chance for nominees to voice what they intend to do under their new boss, and the first time they have to respond to criticism directly.

As per usual for Washington, the hearings were laden with cloudy rhetoric, collegial appreciation, and anticlimaxes—but they also offered a preview of executive branch priorities for the next four years. On Tuesday, Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump's pick for attorney general, and retired Marine general John Kelly, Trump's selection to head the Department of Homeland Security, gave us a glimpse into how closely the incoming administration will handle immigration and border enforcement.

Sessions, whose Department of Justice would oversee immigration law enforcement, is known for his hardline stance on the border, which aligned him with Trump as an adviser early on in the 2016 campaign. He has been one of the most outspoken opponents of immigration reform in Congress, and has labeled the Obama administration's lenient executive actions "overreach." Like many Republicans, including Trump, Sessions has criticized the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which shields children of undocumented immigrants from deportation for a two-year renewable period and offers them work eligibility.

At Sessions's hearing on Tuesday morning, Republican senator Lindsey Graham asked the obvious question about those protected by DACA, a.k.a. DREAMers. "Now we've got 800,000 people who have come out of the shadows and have signed up for DACA," Graham said. "Would you advise President Trump to repeal that executive order?"

"That'll be a decision that will need to be studied, and he would need to agree to it," Sessions replied. Later, he was more blunt: "I would, with the DOJ, have no objection to abandon that order, because it's very questionable, in my opinion, constitutionally."

Democratic senators on the hearing committee were less kind to Sessions. Illinois senator Dick Durbin said Sessions had called Durbin's DREAM Act—a bill that would have written some of the same protections as DACA into law, but was defeated—"a reckless proposal for mass amnesty," and brought up an old statement of Sessions in which he asked, "In terms of who's most likely to be a spy, somebody from Cullman, Alabama, or somebody from Kenya?"

"Senator Sessions," Durbin concluded, "there is not a spot of evidence in your public career to suggest that, as attorney general, you would use the authority of that office to resolve the challenges of our broken immigration system in a fair and humane manner. Tell me I'm wrong."

"You are wrong," Sessions replied blankly, before adding later, "I do believe that, if you continually go through a cycle of amnesty, that you undermine the respect for the law, and encourage more immigration into America... I think it's a good, decent, solid, legal view, from the US, that we create a lawful system of immigration that allows people to apply to this country, and if they're accepted, they get in, and if they don't, they don't get in."

When pressed by Durbin over his vote against the "Gang of Eight" bipartisan immigration reform bill in 2013, Sessions said it would not be his role to wade into the issue if he's confirmed as AG. "The attorney general's role is to enforce the law," he said. "And as you know, we are not able financially or any other way to seek out, and remove, everybody that's in the country illegally."

That's a slight break from Trump's own rhetoric—the president-elect has talked about adding new immigration officers and creating a special "deportation task force" charged with tracking down undocumented immigrants with criminal records. Trump has also said that anyone who is undocumented could be deported.

Unlike Obamacare, which requires congressional action to be repealed, Trump could erase DACA by himself. If that happens, the fate of DREAMers will be determined by enforcement priorities that Sessions would help set. And if Sessions's admission that he can't deport all undocumented immigrants might give them hope, the prospective AG also refused to say that he wouldn't use DREAMers' information in government databases against them. As for whether they would be specifically targeted, Sessions said that that's "really a Homeland Security question."

Conveniently, Tuesday also hosted the confirmation hearing for General John Kelly as head of Homeland Security, the agency charged with border security and deportation efforts. Kelly, who once ran the United States Southern Command, which oversees military operations in Central America, appeared much more moderate on these issues than his soon-to-be boss.  

He voiced a need to work with Latin American governments to invest in economic development and to fight drug cartels. Contrary to Trump's labeling of Mexicans as "rapists and murderers," Kelly said that most migrants come here for economic opportunity and to escape violence. And when Arizona Republican John McCain asked about Trump's famous wall, Kelly seemed dubious.

"As a military person who understands defenses, a physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job," Kelly said. "It really has to be a layered defense. If you were to build a wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, you'd still have to back that wall up with human beings, with sensors, with observation devices."

He later added that the "wall can't be, or won't be, built anytime soon, in terms of the immensity of the project." When a senator praised the nominee for believing that the solution isn't simply a wall, Kelly nodded.

But when it came to DACA, Kelly seemed hazy—he told the Democratic California senator Kamala Harris that the incoming administration's immigration policy is still "developing," and that there is a "big spectrum of people who need to be dealt with," in terms of deportation. Harris argued that DACA applicants now attend universities and work at Fortune 500 companies, then asked if they'd be on the chopping block. Kelly had no solid answer, yet promised "an open mind" and to "follow the law." This vagueness might have something to do with the fact that Kelly apparently hasn't talked to Trump about immigration. On a number of other issues—ranging from mosque surveillance to a registry for Muslim immigrants to torture—Kelly broke from his president-elect.

Of course, as president, Trump can order his department heads to pursue pretty much whatever policy aims he wants. But when Kelly is so obviously out of step with Trump—and when even Sessions, one of Trump's most ardent supporters, isn't eager to embrace a deportation force—it's clear that "Trumpism," whatever that may mean, is still a work in progress. Not that that will be much comfort to DREAMers, though, who are left wondering if their legal status will last the year.

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