Outgoing White House Chief of Staff John Kelly blames former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the "zero tolerance" immigration policy that was widely condemned last spring and summer for separating hundreds of children from parents who illegally crossed the border with them. "What happened was Jeff Sessions, he was the one that instituted the zero-tolerance process on the border that resulted in both people being detained and the family separation," Kelly told the Los Angeles Times in an interview published yesterday. "He surprised us." Yet Kelly himself publicly floated the idea of family separation as a deterrent to illegal immigration more than a year before Sessions announced the policy.
In March 2017, when Kelly had been serving as secretary of homeland security for less than two months, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked him about rumors of "a new initiative that would separate children from their parents if they try to enter the United States illegally." Kelly said he "would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America [from] getting on this very, very dangerous network that brings them up through Mexico into the United States." Blitzer pressed him to clarify: "Are Department of Homeland Security personnel going to separate the children from their moms and dads?" Kelly's response: "In order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network, I am considering exactly that. They will be well cared for as we deal with their parents."
Notably, Kelly presented family separation itself as a way of discouraging illegal migration from Central America: Knowing that their children could be snatched away from them, parents would think twice before embarking on the dangerous journey to the United States. The suffering that was thereby prevented, Kelly suggested, would outweigh the suffering experienced by children of parents who made the trip anyway.
Sessions, by contrast, described family separation as an unavoidable side effect of criminally prosecuting all illegal border crossers, although he did not seem too broken up about it. In May 2018, a month after announcing that zero-tolerance policy, Sessions said migrants had no one to blame but themselves if their children were kidnapped by the U.S. government. "If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you," he said during a speech in Scottsdale, Arizona. "It's that simple….If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."
Kelly, by then Donald Trump's chief of staff, struck a more compassionate note in an NPR interview four days later, saying "the vast majority of the people that move illegally into United States are not bad people." Rather, "They're coming here for a reason, and I sympathize with the reason." But he added that "they're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States," since they are "overwhlemingly rural" and poorly educated. In any case, he said, "the laws are the laws," and "a big name of the game is deterrence." He described family separation as "a tough deterrent."
Kirstjen Nielsen, Kelly's protégé and successor at the Department of Homeland Security, nevertheless indignantly denied that family separation was meant as a deterrent. "I find that offensive," Nielsen said at a June 2018 press conference, "because why would I ever create a policy that purposely does that?" Kelly had explained why, of course, and he had even put a humane spin on what struck most observers, Republicans as well as Democrats, as an inhumane policy. As recently as two months ago, Trump was echoing the rationale that Kelly had enunciated in March 2017. "If they feel there will be separation," the president told reporters, "they don't come."
Now Kelly, on his way out the door, is trying to whitewash his own role in this policy, which provoked outrage across the country and across the political spectrum. Blaming Sessions will not help Kelly's reputation as an "adult in the room" who supposedly resisted the president's more extreme impulses, and it can only hurt his reputation as a blunt-spoken former Marine general who can't help but tell it like it is. Instead he looks like the sort of weaselly political operator he supposedly views with disdain.