WASHINGTON (CN) – Defending a recent ban on immigration from Syria and six other Muslim-majority countries, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told a House committee Tuesday that he wished only that President Donald Trump’s executive action had rolled out better.
Kelly told the House Homeland Security Committee he saw the executive order twice before Trump issued it late on Jan. 27, but said the administration rushed the process to try to keep people from moving coming into the country before the order came down. He acknowledged that in the future the administration should ensure Congress is more aware of planned executive actions.
“Lesson learned, on me, I should have slowed it down by a day, maybe two, probably would not have put it out exactly on a Friday in the way we did,” Kelly said.
The rushed executive order caused mass confusion at airports, and it was initially unclear whom the order covered. It took a statement from Kelly to make it clear that the order allowed people who held green cards to enter the country, but the ban inspired a rash of litigation that shows no sign of fading.
Parts of the executive order are now on hold by court order, but Trump had tried to halt immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and suspend the admission of refugees for 120 days. Those critical of the ban note that the so-called extreme vetting ignores the rigorous admission procedures already in place, serving only to unduly burden immigrants from countries with no benefit on national security.
As to the limits of the executive order, critics worry that Trump could easily extend the temporary ban once in place or add more countries to the no-entry list.
Kelly testified Tuesday the administration is not considering adding more countries to the list of seven already included in the executive order. He did say, however, that the vetting procedures could be modified to make people from certain countries turn over their social-media passwords if they want to come to the United States.
“If they don’t want to give us that information, then they don’t come,” Kelly said.
When asked if the executive order’s ban on refugees was based on a specific threat, Kelly wouldn’t say. He repeatedly defended the order against Democrats who referred to it as a Muslim ban, insisting many of the countries on the list are “nearly failed” states that cannot adequately vet people who are trying to enter the United States.
Those countries include two that are listed as state sponsors of terrorism and others in which the United States does not have embassies, Kelly said.
“I’m at a total loss to understand how we can vet people from various countries when in at least four of those countries we don’t even have an embassy,” Kelly said. “So I think the pause made an awful lot of sense. Going forward we would hope that there are countries that will come off the list.”
Obama administration officials routinely testified at hearings last year that the vetting process for people applying for refugee status is among the most rigorous in the world and that it would be difficult for terrorists to infiltrate that program.
The refugee-vetting procedure can take up to two years to complete and includes background checks with multiple federal agencies as well as personal interviews.
Kelly, on the other hand, struck a vastly different tone, portraying the vetting process as reliant upon foreign governments that do not have the ability to properly track their citizens. It’s been over 40 years since a citizen of the countries on Trump’s list have committed attacks in the United States, but Kelly said there is evidence citizens from those countries have undertaken attacks in Europe.
Kelly also said he could not be sure if people with bad intentions had come into the country either under the old vetting program or during the court-ordered stay on the executive action.
“Not until they act and blow something up or go into a mall and kill people,” Kelly said. “We won’t know until then.”
Trump has spoken harshly of the federal judge in Seattle who placed a nationwide stay on the order last week, writing on Twitter that the judge would be to blame if an attack occurred in the United States after the stay.
Kelly seemed to share the president’s frustration.
“I have nothing but respect for judges, but in their world it’s a very academic, very almost in a vacuum discussion,” Kelly said. “And of course in their courtrooms they’re protected by people like me. So they can have those discussions and if something bad happens from letting people in, they don’t come to the judge to ask him about his ruling. They come to people like me.”