Andrew Harnik/AP

John Kelly Lays Out His Border Security Vision

The DHS chief says fostering economic development in Central America is just as important as rigorously enforcing U.S. immigration laws at home.

The Trump’s administration’s approach to border security starts 1,500 miles south of the U.S.-Mexican border, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said Thursday.

In a 20-minute talk at the Atlantic Council, Kelly offered a distilled version of his approach. The former commander of U.S. Southern Command said he told President Donald Trump that getting a handle on undocumented immigration must begin long before a migrant reaches the United States.

“He agrees that it really starts down there,” Kelly said. “If we can improve the conditions, the lot in life of Hondurans, Guatemalans, Central Americans, we can do an awful lot to protect the southwest border.”

That means working with Latin American nations not just on migration, but on economic prosperity and development — a cause Kelly worked on while in uniform.

“You may ask why is a four-star Marine general, at the time, interested in economic development in three countries in the northern tier [of Central America]?” Kelly said. “The answer is because that’s a solution to a lot of things that plague them, that then cause them to leave their country and move north.”

The just-passed 2017 federal budget includes $300 million for development assistance for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Kelly didn’t mention any concrete steps beyond that regular engagement, though he did announce a joint U.S.-Mexico government conference about economic prosperity and security in the Central America.  

But economic development alone would be insufficient, he said. Many of the people heading north into the U.S. are seeking to escape the violence fomented by the illicit drug trade.

“The reason for the drug flow is our drug demand, and we do almost nothing about it,” he said. That directly results in “what’s happening in Central America: the breakdown of societies, the lack of police effectiveness and a lot of other things.”

That’s nothing new from Kelly. Back when he ran SouthCom, he was saying that Americans’ demand for hard drugs drove instability in his area of responsibility and, by extension, northward migration. But now the connection is getting more attention as today’s Congress focuses on border security and the domestic opioid epidemic.

‘It’s not worth wasting your money’

Progress on those “push” factors will take awhile; neither economic development nor solving the U.S. opioid crisis will happen overnight. In the short term, Kelly’ wants to cut the “pull” factor.

That means strict — and public — enforcement of the U.S. immigration laws to discourage people from entering the States without proper documentation. Immigration policy experts have generally discarded this approach, saying that the pushes are far more powerful than the pulls. But at least in the short term, the Trump administration’s approach appears to be working.

“The message is, ‘If you get here, and if you pay the traffickers, you will probably get here, but you will be turned around within our laws relatively quickly, and returned —it’s not worth wasting your money,’” Kelly said. “Because of all that, and our partnership with Mexico, illegal movements … up into the United States has dropped by 70 percent.”

That approach hasn’t been without controversy, from Texas to Pennsylvania and elsewhere. But Kelly has no plans to shy away from it. Besides believing that it has decreased undocumented immigrants, the retired four-star said it’s also a matter of legal responsibility.

“I have no choice but to carry out the law,” he said. “I’m very quick to point out to Congress, if you don’t like the immigration laws, then do your duty and change the law.”

That’s a refrain he’s oft repeated since assuming the DHS mantle — sometimes with slightly more direct language.

But what about a wall?

Even before he was confirmed, Kelly advocated a much more holistic approach to the physical land border than the White House’s calls for a wall.

“Securing our border — in some places with a physical barrier, in others with patrolling [and] technology — that will go a long way, as well,” he said today.

Trump had requested $1.5 billion to start constructing a wall along the southern border. But the 2017 budget, passed by Congress today, does not include funding for any new walls or fencing (though it does include $341 million for repairing existing barriers).