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Homeland Security Secretary Doesn’t See Building a Wall Along U.S.-Mexico Border

6 Apr

By Dan Frosch and Laura Meckler

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told members of Congress Wednesday that he doesn’t envision a wall stretching the entire length of the U.S. border with Mexico, and would instead focus on building additional fencing where it was most feasible.

Mr. Kelly’s remarks, made Wednesday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security, run contrary to one of President Donald Trump’s key campaign promises, to build a wall along the entire 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

The administration is pursuing funding and bids to build a border wall, but the project faces significant political, geographical, legal and financial challenges. Mr. Kelly’s comments reflect longstanding views of many security experts and growing concerns among lawmakers that an end-to-end wall isn’t practical or affordable.

Mr. Kelly said he was consulting with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials about where additional fencing along the nearly 2,000-mile border was most needed, adding that he had been given “a lot of elbow room” on the issue.

“The president knows I’m looking at every variation on the theme,” he said.

Mr. Kelly added, “I have no doubt when I go back to him and say…‘[A] wall makes sense here, high-tech fencing makes sense over here, technology makes sense over here…he will go tell me to do it.”

The Homeland Security secretary faced tough questioning from Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.), who pressed him on a policy being considered by Homeland Security that would separate parents and children caught trying to cross the border illegally.

Mr. Kelly said previously that he was weighing the approach to deter families seeking to come to the U.S. from becoming ensnared in dangerous human smuggling networks. But on Wednesday, he told the committee that the measure would generally only be undertaken if the child’s life was in danger, “depending on what’s going on, on the ground.”

When pressed by Ms. Harris about whether his staff had been given a written directive on that issue, Mr. Kelly said he didn’t need to because he had already given verbal commands to his staff.

“My staff knows already that they will not separate anyone unless I’m informed,” he said.

He also faced sharp questioning from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.), the top Democrat on the committee, about his agency’s plans for tough new vetting procedures, who called ideas under consideration “very un-American.”

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the Trump administration was considering new vetting rules that would ask visa applicants to provide cellphone contacts and social media passwords as well as answer probing questions about their ideology. A senior Homeland Security official said the changes could apply to close U.S. allies as well as visitors from other countries.

Sen. McCaskill said such procedures, which are still under consideration, would alienate allies and fail to screen out “bad guys.”

“If they know we’re going to look at their phones and we know we’re going to ask them questions about their ideology, they’re going to get rid of their phones and guess what they’re going to do on ideology? They’re going to lie,” she said.

Much of the hearing, though, was focused on the border wall. And Mr. Kelly’s comments come a day after a deadline for companies to submit their initial designs for the project to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The agency recently put out requests for proposals for a solid concrete wall and a wall made of alternative material—both at least 18 feet high.

Several hundred companies expressed initial interest in bidding for the project, though it was unclear how many submitted actual plans before Tuesday’s deadline. CBP said it hopes to winnow down the proposals in the coming months.

Responding to Mr. Kelly’s testimony, Sen. McCaskill said at the hearing that Mr. Trump should stop talking about building a “wall from sea to shining sea” that would be paid for by Mexico.

“It’s embarrassing. It’s not going to happen. Everybody in Congress knows it’s not going to happen,” she said.

Some 650 miles of fencing already wind across portions of the southwest border. Mr. Kelly acknowledged Wednesday that in some places it would be difficult to erect more barriers because of a variety of factors like rugged terrain and environmental concerns.

Specifically, he cited a specific 75-mile swath of borderlands in Arizona, part of the Tohono O’odham Nation Indian reservation, as an example of where additional fencing would be unlikely.

“Not going to build a wall where it doesn’t make sense,” he told lawmakers.

At the hearing, Mr. Kelly also touted a sharp reduction in apprehensions of people trying to cross the southwestern border in March, but cautioned that the drop wouldn’t last until more was done to secure the border.

Mr. Kelly said in a prepared statement submitted to the committee that less than 17,000 people were caught last month trying to cross the southwest border—down from 46,150 in March 2016, according to federal data. He stated that it was the fifth straight month where border apprehensions had declined.

Mr. Kelly said the decline showed the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policies were indeed swaying people from crossing into the U.S. illegally. Though many of those policies have yet to be implemented, Mr. Kelly said, “what we’re doing on the border, what we intend to do on the border, has added to that deterrent effect.”