Blame Game

Border Trip Reveals Homeland Sec. Kelly—Attorney General Sessions Split on Immigration, Drugs

They have the same boss, the same goals, but these two Cabinet secretaries have very different ways of achieving reform of the immigration system and the nation’s drug policies.

Mark Wilson/Getty

The good cop and the bad cop are headed to the border.

Homeland Security Sec. John Kelly and Attorney General Jeff Sessions—the two men tasked with implementing President Donald Trump’s immigration plans—will visit San Diego and El Paso this week, on a road trip where their contrasting focuses and styles could stand in stark relief.

And though those differences are—at this point—mostly stylistic, they indicate a worldview divide between the two on the issue of immigration. Though both men evince unflinching commitment to Trump’s immigration priorities (and recently teamed up to defend the presence of ICE agents in courthouses), they talk about it in very different ways.

And their differences could already be impacting who gets deported and who stays in the U.S.

Sessions, who was one of the Senate’s most committed immigration hawks during his time there, describes illegal immigration as a threat to national sovereignty that must be blocked at all costs. Kelly, meanwhile, frequently expresses concern for migrants’ wellbeing.

On drugs, there’s a parallel good cop-bad cop dynamic: Sessions emphasizes the violence of cartels, while Kelly always points out the culpability of American drug users in empowering those cartels. For Sessions, the drug war is us-versus-them—American law enforcement against cartel killers. But for Kelly, the relationship between the U.S. and those cartels as darkly symbiotic, with Americans responsible for financing violence and chaos in Central America and Mexico.

These differences were on clear display last weekend. On Saturday night, Sessions gave an exclusive sit-down interview to right-wing firebrand Jeanine Pirro for her Fox News show, “Justice with Judge Jeanine.” There, Sessions reiterated a promise he made the week before on his first trip to the border as attorney general: to take the Drug War fight to the cartels.

“We’re going to go after them,” he said. “We can defeat those gangs.”

And he expressed incredulity that any undocumented immigrants in the U.S. would assume they wouldn’t eventually get deported.

“No person can come into the country illegally and not expect to be deported,” he said. “Where did this come from?”

Sessions’s message to Central Americans looking to enter the U.S. illegally is straightforward: If you come to the U.S., you’ll get caught. And if you’re here without legal authorization, you should assume you’ll get deported. Every undocumented immigrant is an unacceptable affront to national sovereignty, he argues. It’s simple.

Meanwhile, when Kelly warns undocumented immigrants against coming to the U.S., he says it’s because migration wouldn’t be in their own best interest.

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“Many Guatemalans, and for that matter irregular migrants from any country, who make the journey north find themselves tortured, beaten, starved, raped or sold into the sex trade,” he said at a press conference with Guatemala’s foreign minister when he visited the country in February.

He added that migrants waste their money when they pay smugglers to bring them to the U.S.

“You will be returned very quickly,” he said.

And he characterized undocumented immigrants on this Sunday’s Meet the Press in a way Sessions never would: “[T]he vast majority of them are good people from Central America,” he said.

Another big contrast: While Sessions’s comments on drugs focus on the threat cartel violence poses to the U.S., Kelly emphasizes the damage U.S. drug consumers do to Central America.

Kelly’s adolescence in Boston informed his view on drugs, according to a source familiar with his background. The source said many of his childhood acquaintances died in their teens from drug overdoses—including overdoses on opioids—and that made the issue deeply personal to him. In public remarks and congressional testimony, Kelly blames drug users for the profits that leave Central American cartels flush with cash they use to buy off government officials. And he sees a Drug War victory as far beyond the scope of law enforcement.

“The solution is not arresting a lot of users,” he said on Meet the Press. “The solution is a comprehensive drug demand reduction program in the United States that involves every man and woman of goodwill.”

And unlike Sessions—who has long decried marijuana as a dangerous gateway drug—Kelly said on Meet the Press that marijuana was “not a factor in the drug war.”

All these differences aren’t just about style.

During his time in the Senate, Sessions was an avowed opponent of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) that then-President Barack Obama implemented. The program temporarily shielded hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants from deportation, all of whom came to the U.S. as children, got jobs or pursued higher education, and didn’t commit crimes. Sessions argued the program was an “executive amnesty” that would encourage more migrants to come to the U.S. illegally. The fact that Trump hasn’t rescinded DACA has disappointed many ardent immigration restrictionists.

But not his Homeland Security head.

According to a recent report, is unconcerned about it. NBC reported that Kelly told Democratic lawmakers in a meeting on Capitol Hill that he was “the best thing that happened to DACA… it is still on the books,” and that he called DACA recipients “the least of my worries.”