DHS Secretary John Kelly speaks at a press conference Tuesday.

DHS Secretary John Kelly speaks at a press conference Tuesday. Andrew Harnik/AP

New Homeland Security Team Defends Rushed Response to Trump Directives

Secretary Kelly denies reports he was surprised by White House border policy.

Since Friday night’s harried rollout of President Trump’s new anti-terrorism border enforcement directives, “interagency communication hasn’t been the best,” acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told a press conference on Tuesday. “But it will get better.”

Appearing with a new and temporary team running the Homeland Security Department, McAleenan said that overall the “immediate action” taken to implement stricter screening of foreign travelers arriving in the United States “was very smooth,” even though the agents had to adjust for several court orders and some airline carriers that had delayed passengers because they “over-interpreted our guidance, which we worked hard to correct.”

That meant “collaborating with leadership and field offices and making calls to stakeholders,” he added.

A million passengers arrived at U.S. checkpoints during the first hours after the directives, McAleenan added, 500,000 of which were foreign. Over three days, CBP detained 721 and granted 1,060 waivers for lawful permanent residents and 75 to those with immigrant visas. Some 872 refugees deemed ready to travel will arrive this week, he said.

He clarified that the figure of 109 travelers delayed given by White House press secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly in the past few days was only for Day 1 of the directives.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly pushed back against media reports that Trump’s immigration executive order was a Muslim ban and was undertaken without DHS’ input. “The three executive orders [secure] our borders, enhance our immigration system and keep our citizens safe,” he told reporters. “It is not a travel ban but a temporary pause that allows” the department to review the vetting system for 30 days, before taking 60 days to consult with overseas partners.

Such a study of the immigration system, “the most generous in the world,” he said, is “long overdue.” It is “strongly supported by our career officers,” who have been directed to work with the Defense, Justice and State departments to implement it “professionally, humanely, and in accordance with the law.”

More pointedly, Kelly said, the policy “is not a ban on Muslims. Religious liberty is one of our most cherished values. The vast majority of the 1.7 billion Muslims who live on the planet have access to the United states.”

Reacting to questions about travelers with proper visas who were delayed or barred from entering, Kelly said, “no CBP official intentionally violated a court order.”

Kelly rebutted media reports that he had been on an airplane when Trump signed the order and was out of the loop in its creation. “Trump’s whole approach was clear from 18 months of campaigning,” Kelly said, saying he knew that “high-level lawyers at DHS headquarters” handled it, primarily as a “more or less collaborative” staff process, and work on a document that was kept on a “close hold basis.”

Departments, he added, “are the implementors of policies created by the White House and approved by the president.” He said he “didn’t get involved in correcting grammar,” though he knew a couple of days before the Inauguration that the orders were coming.

Office of Intelligence and Analysis acting Undersecretary David Glawe said the executive orders allowed “a temporary pause to see how we collect intelligence on nefarious actors,” and to review “how agencies and local law enforcement share intelligence to identify these networks coming in, to connect the dots.”

The seven nations identified in the order—based on lists from Congress and the Obama administration, they said—too often are “societies in collapse” or lack record-keeping systems for thorough background checks. Asked to define Trump’s phrase “extreme vetting,” Kelly and McAleenan said the procedures still under development will involve investigating individuals by checking the websites they’ve visited, their phone contacts and use of social media.