With immigration at the center of Donald Trump’s campaign, the president-elect’s choice to head the Department of Homeland Security carries major significance. Of all the federal agencies, it’s the one that has the most direct authority on immigration, controlling key agencies such as Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. If Trump decides to round up 11 million people—or just crack down on the border, or whatever he does—DHS will be at the front lines.
On Wednesday, Trump chose retired Gen. John Kelly to lead DHS, a pick widely seen as a kind of middle ground. Hardliners were hoping for Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach; Texas Rep. Mike McCaul was seen as more moderate choice. Kelly hasn’t said a lot on immigration policy, but experts are tentatively optimistic that he’s well-acquainted with the agency’s mission: as head of U.S. Southern Command, responsible for military activities and relationships in Central and South America, he knows the region south of the border and often collaborated with DHS.
Once in office, though, what could he actually do? The department has around a quarter million employees, one of the largest agencies, and encompasses the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration, the Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and more. For all DHS’s size, though, former DHS leaders say that Kelly would have less influence over policy than other cabinet nominees, such as Sen. Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice and Rep. Tom Price at the Department of Health and Human Services. That’s because DHS is built more around executing policy than setting it, and less involved with making sweeping policy changes.
“The secretary of DHS has a wider array of things that he or she manages, and therefore there’s much more operational activity,” said former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. “But it tends not to be dramatic change. It tends to be more incremental.”
On the most important issue of the 2016 campaign—immigration—Kelly is likely to be following Trump’s lead; it’s the president-elect who will decide just how totally and abruptly to reverse Obama’s directives on leaving many undocumented immigrants alone. Kelly might have input into those policy decisions, but more likely he’ll be left to figure out how to make them happen. On the many other things DHS does, he’ll have more latitude, but the underlying policies are much less controversial, and less likely to shift under Trump. To understand what could change under Kelly—and what is likely to stay the same—POLITICO talked with a half dozen former DHS officials. Here is what we found:
The first two major questions facing Kelly—and Trump—will be over how to handle President Barack Obama’s immigration policy. The first is the deferred action program that allows undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children—so-called Dreamers—to stay and work in the country without being deported. Nearly 750,000 undocumented immigrants have received work permits under the program, which is administered by USCIS. The deferred action program could be eliminated on Trump’s first day in office.
The second is the immigration enforcement priorities, first created in 2010 and then later revised in 2014, that specify who immigration agents should target for deportation. Under the current priorities, national security threats, those with criminal records and recent arrivals are prioritized for removal. Immigration activists say that the priorities have effectively protected millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. But they can just as easily be changed, or eliminated altogether.
How Kelly will handle the deferred action program and enforcement priorities ultimately is unlikely to be up to him. That will likely fall to the White House. Trump’s immigration policy has varied throughout the election, but most recently he has promised to deport all undocumented immigrants with criminal records—although immigration experts note that his estimate of how many people fit that category was exaggerated. Trump has spoken less about the enforcement priorities but promised in a prominent immigration speech before the election to get rid of them.
Whatever Trump and his staff, along with Kelly and other top DHS officials, decide to do with the deferred action program and enforcement priorities, DHS will be the sharp end of the stick, responsible for implementing and enforcing the new policies—and it will be Kelly who decides just how to shift its resources around to get the new job done.
A radical shift in enforcement priorities, such as targeting the Dreamers for deportation, will mean pulling manpower away from other priorities. It’s Kelly who will have to decide what to de-emphasize. “The question is: are you going to move agents from vital activities so you can look for people who are here illegally,” said John Cohen, a former senior counterterrorism official with DHS and current professor at Rutgers University. “That’s one challenge that the new secretary will have to deal with in the job.”
Kelly might also be responsible for implementing another Trump campaign promise: preventing refugees from specific countries from entering the United States. The controversial proposal changed over the campaign and some legal scholars have questioned its constitutionality, although there were larger questions about Trump’s initial proposal to block Muslims from entering the country. Refugee applications are also reviewed by USCIS, an agency within DHS; the executive branch has some discretion in who to let in.
“The decisions about how many and which refugees to be admitted could be changed and could be implemented in the first 100 days,” said Stewart Baker, former assistant secretary for policy at DHS.
As with policies on undocumented immigration, the Trump White House is likely to have a significant role in policy decisions around refugee programs. But it will fall onto Kelly to implement and enforce those policies.
In terms of vetting the refugees, that responsibility falls to Customs and Border Protection. Cohen said that while he was at the department, they developed enhanced vetting procedures to incorporate further information in the process, including potentially social media information. But the program has yet to be fully implemented. “That is an area that on day one he could emphasize as a priority,” he said. “We could see some tremendous progress.”
While TSA policies are less prominent than immigration, Kelly also has the ability to change security policies. One big issue revolves around the pre-clearance program—called pre-check—which allows air travelers to submit information on themselves to the agency and receive expedited screening. It’s a controversial program among some in the intelligence community, who believe it creates security weaknesses. Under the Obama administration, DHS officials have prioritized precheck but Kelly could deemphasize it, if he so chooses.
“TSA screening is always a very difficult issue in terms of how aggressively do you screen individuals, how aggressively do you do things that we pursued and Sec. [Jeh] Johnson pursued like pre-check and advance screening of individuals before they board a flight,” said John Sandweg, a former senior DHS official in the Obama administration. Under Obama, Sandweg said, DHS has focused on “pushing the borders out”—conducting more screening outside of the United States, before travelers board planes. That includes deploying customs officers to overseas airports and working with the airline to stop people who are considered a threat from getting on a plane. Kelly could undo many of these policies by focusing TSA resources on the United States, but Sandweg doesn’t expect that: “I would not be surprised to see him continues to adopt those tactics of pushing the borders out.”
Many programs and agencies will stay the same
Former DHS officials said they really don’t expect that much to immediately change beyond immigration policy. Under Johnson, DHS has created joint task forces between its own agencies to better coordinate their enforcement—“similar to how DOD manages forces in combat,” said Sandweg—a structure that Kelly’s military background suggests he’s unlikely to alter.
The same goes for agencies like the Coast Guard and FEMA, which Sandweg said don’t have any major operational issues and are unlikely to garner wide attention from the boss. And the Secret Service, for all its recent problems, is an agency with a very specific mission and a direct line to the president, making it more challenging for Kelly to make major policy changes, Chertoff explained.
Finally, cyber policy is likely to be another prominent issue in Kelly’s DHS. That includes continuing to improve protections for government websites and helping the government formulate a strategy for defending against and responding to cyberattacks. The issue is likely to garner significant attention within the Trump administration, especially after the Obama administration has alleged that Russia interfered with the U.S. election (although Trump recently has denied this was the case). But it’s not especially political, and unlikely to see controversial changes.