Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly made it clear Sunday that his agency has no plans to shy away from arresting or deporting illegal immigrants.
In the past, Kelly suggested, it would have been “unlikely” for former President Barack Obama’s administration to deport someone for lower-level offenses. Most deportations have been centered on high-profile crimes such as rape and murder.
During an interview Sunday with NBC’s “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd, though, the secretary indicated that the threshold for deportation will be much lower under President Donald Trump.
“Can you give me an example of somebody that wasn’t deported before that you’re deporting now?” Todd asked.
Kelly responded, “Well, someone, as an example, with multiple DUIs — even a single DUI, depending on other aspects, would get you into the system.”
Moments before that exchange, the NBC host asked Kelly if the definition of a “criminal” is somehow different now from what it was under the Obama administration.
“It is fair to say the definition of ‘criminal’ has not changed,” Kelly said. “But where on the spectrum of criminality we operate has changed.”
The DHS chief’s comments came days after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, during his tour of the southwestern border, told Border Patrol agents that the country is stepping into “a new era” of immigration enforcement, according to Politico.
“For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned: This is a new era,” Sessions said last week. “This is the Trump era. The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws and the catch-and-release practices of the past are over.”
The attorney general also issued a memo Tuesday calling on federal attorneys to consider prosecuting anyone who harbors illegal immigrants, prioritizing those who protect violent offenders or are involved in transporting or protecting three or more people living in the U.S. illegally.
During his interview with NBC, though, Kelly made clear that the immigration shift is not about creating a harsh climate for immigrants. Rather, he argued, it is about upholding the law.
“You’ve got to remember, there’s a legal justice system in place,” Kelly said. “The law deports people. Secretary Kelly doesn’t. [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] doesn’t. It’s the United States criminal justice system — or the justice system — that deports people.”
However, while ICE arrests are up, deportations are down, according to the Washington Post. In the first three months of the Trump administration, 54,741 immigrants have been deported, a 1.2 percent drop compared to the same period last year. ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea told the Post that government bureaucracy and time are the reasons behind the overall decline in deportations.
In February, Kelly instructed Homeland Security to hire 5,000 more Border Patrol agents and 10,000 additional ICE officials in an effort to meet Trump’s increased focus on illegal immigration. He also called for the end of so-called “catch-and-release” policies, which allow illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. freely while they await hearings on their legal status moving forward.
Those changes came on the heels of Trump’s executive order calling for the deportation of illegal immigrants who “have been convicted of any criminal offense,” “have been charged with any criminal offense,” “have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense,” or “are subject to a final order of removal.”