Immigration hard-liners on Wednesday praised retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, President-Elect Donald Trump’s apparent pick to head the Department of Homeland Security.
Kelly, 66, served as commander for the U.S. Southern Command until his retirement in January. A Latin America expert with extensive combat experience, he clashed with the Obama administration on a number of issues, including the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba and the security of the nation’s southwest border.
“General Kelly’s going to hit the ground running … He will back efforts to stanch the threats of illegal immigration, drugs, and terrorism.”
In his final statement to Congress, Kelly spoke of “transnational organized crime,” a threat he maintained that the U.S. government had underestimated.
“Unless confronted by an immediate, visible, or uncomfortable crisis, our nation’s tendency is to take the security of the Western Hemisphere for granted,” he wrote in prepared remarks for the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I believe this is a mistake.”
Advocates of stricter immigration enforcement said Kelly was well-positioned to shift the Department of Homeland Security in a different direction.
“General Kelly’s going to hit the ground running … He will back efforts to stanch the threats of illegal immigration, drugs, and terrorism,” said Dave Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Ray said Kelly can make an immediate impact by reversing directives of the Obama administration that border patrol agents complain have undermined their ability to do their jobs. One notorious directive  requires border patrol officers to release anyone — without even a notice to appear in immigration court — who claims to have been in the United States continuously since before Jan. 1, 2014.
Ray said Kelly has the expertise to make specific recommendations about physical structures along the border. He has given hints in the past that immigration enforcement must include a more comprehensive approach than building a long border wall.
“Obviously, some form of control, whether it’s a wall or a fence,” he told the Military Times in January. “But 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.”
Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said he does not know enough about Kelly to make an informed judgment.
“What I can say is I’ve been impressed with the picks that President-Elect Trump and Vice President-Elect [Mike] Pence have made so far, and I have to assume Gen. Kelly will turn out to be one of them,” said Judd, whose union endorsed Trump  during the presidential campaign.
Judd followed up in an email to LifeZette that Kelly was not his first choice because he lacks immigration experience, but he added that reports that the general was well-liked and well-respected by his men augurs well for rebuilding morale in a unit that consistently has ranked at the bottom of all federal agencies.
Judd praised Kelly’s “stellar credentials” but added that his union will watch to make sure that Trump keeps his promises to improve enforcement of immigration law.
William Gheen, founder of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, said Kelly’s military background will be an asset.
“I’m glad to see that he’s a border hawk,” he said. “The border is so far gone … it requires a military solution.”
Gheen said he hopes Trump finds places in his administration for outgoing Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and others who have been fighting illegal immigration far longer than Trump.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Kelly has a strong record on the national security aspects of the job.
“I don’t see anything negative,” he said. “He’s obviously very good on border security. That was obviously part of his appeal.”
But Krikorian said Kelly is a "blank slate" on other aspects of the job related to immigration. Kelly has not spoken publicly, for instance, about his views on enforcement at job sites of laws prohibiting the hiring of illegal immigrants. Krikorian pointed out that the Homeland Security Department also plays a role in the issuing of work permits to foreigners.
"The open question is how committed to protecting American workers he'll be," Krikorian said. "We don't have a clue. I'm hopeful … My concern is that the Bushites and corporate lobbyists not get to him and shape his perspective on those issues."
In the January interview with the Military Times, Kelly said there are "no innocent people" at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, which Obama has tried repeatedly to close.
"They're detainees, not prisoners," he told the Military Times. "The lifestyle they live in Guantánamo is — they can't simply be put in a prison in the United States."