Without Trump’s Stalled Travel Ban, DHS Chief Not ‘Fully Confident’ of U.S. Security

Kelly and Trump attend the Coast Guard graduation ceremony in Connecticut in May Kelly and Trump attend the Coast Guard graduation ceremony in Connecticut in May Jetta Disco/Homeland Security

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly defended President Donald Trump’s stalled travel ban on Tuesday, saying that without it, he was "not fully confident” the federal government could stop terrorists from “taking advantage of our generous visa and immigration system" and entering the United States.

Delivered in the wake of the London terrorist attack that killed eight people, Kelly’s warning echoed Trump’s own statements about the Saturday attack, which in turn reiterated previous comments by the president about the injunctions placed by federal courts on his executive order and refugee-screening review.

“Fully implementing the EO would clearly and substantially increase our ability to secure the nation from those who seek to do us harm,” Kelly told legislators Wednesday. “Bottom line: I have been enjoined from doing things that I know would make America safer.”

That’s because, Kelly argued, terrorist groups are using refugee flows “as a Trojan horse to deploy operatives to conduct attacks” in the West.

The executive order would subject visitors from six Muslim-majority countries to increased screening and temporary restriction from entering the United States. Kelly told the House Homeland Security Committee that those countries were chosen due to their instability, connections to terrorism, and other security concerns.

“It has nothing to do with religion, or skin color, or the way they live their lives,” he said. “It is about security for the American people, nothing else.”

The president has not reiterated his calls for a “Muslim ban” since his campaign, although a statement calling for the "total and complete shutdown" of Muslims entering the United States until the government can "figure out what is going on," appeared on his campaign website until May 8. The president has has repeatedly advocated for the “travel ban.”

As for refugees, none has committed a deadly terror attack on U.S. soil since the refugee-entry process was overhauled in 1980, a Cato Institute study found.

Over the past two days before committees in both Congressional houses, Kelly gave full support to Trump’s ban and some of the president’s other national security proposals, including his focus on securing the U.S.’s southwestern border. Kelly warned that could be another entry point for potential terrorists.

“It’s less and less of a concern because of what we’re doing, but one concern I do have is the southwest border,” he said. “When there is a terrorist threat or terrorist event in the United States that comes from outside the country, my belief is, until recently, that that threat would have gotten here through the worldwide network that flows up through Central America and across our wide-open southwest border.”

Kelly called Trump’s border wall “an ongoing opportunity to provide security.” But the former commander of U.S. Southern Command also said the solution to better security starts with partner nations 1,500 miles south of the actual border — a line he’s used before.  

How much will the wall cost? Kelly couldn’t say. Estimates have ranged from $12 billion to $67 billion. The White House’s 2018 budget proposal included $1.6 billion as a downpayment, but the administration is still discussing what, exactly, the wall will look like — from virtual barriers to solar panel-covered, 50-foot barriers.

“There are places along that border where clearly a physical barrier of some type is either too hard, or we don’t need to do it because there’s not a lot of crossing,” Kelly said today. “There’s other places along the border, particularly near the urban areas, that my CBP professionals are asking for additional barriers.”

But even in a hypothetical world where a combination of the wall, travel ban, increased vetting and other security measures helped secure the border against all external threats, Kelly warned homegrown extremism would still prove a threat.

He’s been saying that for a while — in April, he told CBS News, “Obviously, you got the homegrown terrorists. I don’t know how to stop that. I don’t know how to detect that.”

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