President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Homeland Security chief, John F. Kelly, has experts analyzing how the decision might affect Central America and determine the fate of refugees and migrants living in the United States.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to coordinate the battle against terrorism. Now, it is perhaps equally known for its role in federal immigration policies. As head of the department, Kelly would be responsible for border management, enforcing immigration laws, counter-terrorism and national security, and reacting to cyber threats and natural disasters.
“He is the right person to spearhead the urgent mission of stopping illegal immigration and securing our borders,” Trump said of Kelly, recalling his “decades of military service and deep commitment to fighting the threat of terrorism.”
Kelly, 66, is widely considered a Latin America expert after his last military post as head of the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which leads U.S. military operations in the region. In his new role, the retired Marine general will be expected to spearhead Trump’s border security plans, which – if his presidential campaign was any indication – would consist of a “big, beautiful wall” on the border with Mexico and deporting millions of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S.
“Trump himself is going to set the tone of what Homeland Security should do, and what [Kelly’s] really doing is implementing it,” said Gregory Weeks, editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist, in an interview with Humanosphere. “I think border enforcement and interior immigration enforcement is going to be his big focus.”
Other experts have pointed out that Kelly has openly disagreed with Trump on border security issues, stressing that tougher border security and a wall are not sufficient solutions. Kelly has been known to favor economic development, seeing the challenges to U.S. security as holistic and regional rather than stopping at the country’s border line.
“If the countries where these migrants come from have reasonable levels of violence and reasonable levels of economic opportunity, then the people won’t leave to come here,” Kelly told the Military Times earlier this year.
Still, Kelly is widely expected to take a hardline stance on immigration. Weeks pointed out that it might not be different from current operations, which have already cracked down hard on illegal immigration.
“What we have to remember is that President Obama has also had a pretty aggressive deportation policy,” said Weeks. “So Kelly’s going to inherit a department that already has a pretty strong deportation infrastructure in place.”
Human rights advocates have warned for years that mass deportation of illegal immigrants in the U.S. is not an adequate solution. Many of these refugees and migrants would be deported to countries still emerging from periods of war with scarce economic prospects and dangerously weak law enforcement. Without alternatives, some experts say these people would inevitably slip back into the stream of migrants headed to the U.S.
“If you have people who are willing to cross the U.S. border and the desert at the risk of dying, the thought of trying to deter people doesn’t really fit with reality,” Maureen Meyer, senior associate for Mexico and migrant rights at WOLA, told Vice.
Another consequence of forcing millions of migrants to return to such environments could be a surge in gang violence and crime, which has contributed to homicide rates resembling those of war-torn countries in parts of Central America.
Many experts attribute the rise of criminal groups in Central America to a change in U.S. policy in the 1990s, which ramped up deportation and sent thousands of young men back to countries like El Salvador and Honduras. This created “an era of expansion for these gangs,” Mike Vigil, the former chief of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told Business Insider.
“And as a result of that, we have created a disaster in Central America … where these gangs are fighting among each other, creating a massive migration of individuals into the United States.”