White House

Trump turns to Kelly to quell lawmakers complaints about immigration negotiations

President Donald Trump's Chief of Staff John Kelly attends a meeting between President Donald Trump and Republican Senators on immigration in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, in Washington.
President Donald Trump's Chief of Staff John Kelly attends a meeting between President Donald Trump and Republican Senators on immigration in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, in Washington. AP

When Republican senators visited President Donald Trump last week at the White House, they posed a significant question: Why is no one from the administration in charge of immigration negotiations?

That meeting led to Trump’s decision this week to task his trusted chief of staff John Kelly to play point on immigration as lawmakers debate a border wall and the fate of young people brought into the country illegally as children, a senior White House official told McClatchy.

Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, previously served as the secretary of Homeland Security and commander of United States Southern Command, responsible for military operations in Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

The news was largely welcomed on Capitol Hill, where some accuse Trump’s controversial senior policy adviser Stephen Miller of standing in the way of a deal on immigration and others said they didn’t know who to talk to about the contentious issue.

Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, a Florida Republican working on an immigration deal, described Kelly, who he got to know as command of Southern Command, based in Florida, described him as a person of “unparalleled integrity and courage.”

“General Kelly has intimate knowledge of our national and homeland security, as well as a unique understanding of our hemisphere,” he said.

Other administration officials remain involved in immigration, including Miller, Marc Short, director of legislative affairs and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, according to the White House. Kelly will not attend every meeting but he is now responsible for getting a deal done.

The decision came after Trump met with seven Republicans senators Jan. 4 about immigration and several asked why there were multiple points of contacts and not one point person on the issue for the administration, a senior White House official said.

Other lawmakers say they have been frustrated they had repeatedly asked the administration to provide them with a more specific list of immigration priorities and they had not received a response. This week the administration provided lawmakers with a DHS document with more information about each of its priorities.

I really believe they're going to come up with a solution to the DACA problem, which has been going on for a long time. And maybe beyond that, immigration as a whole

President Donald Trump

Major differences remain on immigration. Democrats are pushing for protections for Dreamers in exchange for increased border security. But Republicans, including Trump, insist that border security includes a wall and that changes are made to chain migration, which allows immigrants to help get other immigrants into the United States, and the diversity visa lottery program, which lets immigrants be awarded green cards.

“It's got to include the wall,” Trump said at a news conference Wednesday at the White House. “We need the wall for security. We need the wall for safety. We need the wall for stopping the drugs from pouring in.”

Kelly supported an Obama-era program that protected young people brought into the country illegally as children by their undocumented parents from deportation and allows them to attain temporary, renewable work permits.

For that, he has his critics.

“He’s not an ally of the rule of law on this,” said Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican and one of most conservative voices in the House who opposes legal status for Dreamers. “He’s said openly he wants to provide DACA relief, he said that as Homeland Security secretary. He’s a fine and admirable general … but we flat disagree on this.”

In December, Kelly attended some meetings at the White House with Republican lawmakers from both chambers to talk about a possible immigration deal. He also attended a meeting with a dozen senators Dec. 19 on Capitol Hill.

He will need to enlist the support of some Democrats to pass a bill that protects the nearly 800,000 Dreamers.

Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Republican, said he told Kelly, then DHS secretary, that someone can’t just spend a few hours at the border and think they understand it.

“There are a lot of us on the border who understand the border very well,” he said. “And I think they need to listen to those voices. ...You have to have people from the border to address the border.”

Trump announced in September he will shut down the program — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA — March 5, giving Congress time to pass a legislative fix. Some lawmakers of both parties are pushing for a legislative fix to be part of the deal for Democratic support of a spending package that must be passed by Jan. 19 to keep most of the government operating.

Andrea Drusch contributed to this report.