WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump's immigration and travel ban made "an awful lot of sense" but probably should have been delayed at least long enough to brief Congress about it, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told lawmakers Tuesday.
Kelly's comment to the House Homeland Security Committee was the most direct acknowledgment by a high-level administration official that the rollout of Trump's executive order had been mishandled.
"In retrospect, I should have — this is all on me, by the way — I should have delayed it just a bit so that I could talk to members of Congress, particularly to the leadership of committees like this, to prepare them for what was coming," Kelly said in his first public meeting with lawmakers since being confirmed by the Senate last month.
Trump's executive order temporarily stopped citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. and also temporarily barred the admission of refugees. A court has blocked the order, but the administration is appealing.
Kelly defended the order, saying it will enhance public safety "for all our citizens," but said in hindsight he would have delayed its launch by "a day or two."
Kelly was put on the defensive by Democratic lawmakers who have argued that the travel ban is inhumane, counterproductive and essentially a Muslim ban — an allegation Kelly repeatedly denied. Kelly referred to the order as a "pause" that would give the U.S. government time to fully evaluate how would-be visitors and refugees are being vetted before they are allowed into the country.
The Trump administration, including Justice Department lawyers defending the order in a federal appeals court, has said the travel ban was necessary to keep would-be terrorists out of the country. Trump has repeatedly tweeted that a court order temporarily blocking the ban is leading to "people pouring in." In a tweet this week, Trump said "many very bad and dangerous people may be pouring into our country."
Pressed by Rep. Bennie Thompson, the committee's ranking Democrat, to address the president's claim, Kelly said only that the government won't know for sure if someone with bad intentions entered the U.S. "until the boom."
"We won't know until then," Kelly said, referring to a possible attack.
Kelly also addressed questions about the Trump administration's plans for a wall along the border with Mexico and his efforts to bolster the ranks of the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the DHS agency responsible for finding and arresting immigrants living in the county illegally.
On Trump's wall, Kelly said he is relying on recommendations from border agents along the southern border. He said he asked agents in Texas' Rio Grande Valley about the issue in a visit last week.
"Part of the reason I went down there, first and foremost, was to ask the people that know more about this than anyone else on the planet," Kelly said. "There are walls there, parts of walls in strategic places in McAllen on the border. But do we need more wall? And they said, well, you know, secretary, we need ... to extend some walls; we need to fill in some places with physical barriers."
He did not address how any new walls or fencing would be paid for but wouldn't rule out barriers in places including the rugged Big Bend area of Texas, parts of which are marked by towering jagged cliffs on either side of the Rio Grande.
Kelly also told lawmakers that while he will follow the president's directive to hire 5,000 Border Patrol agents and 10,000 ICE agents, his department won't be able to add staff "overnight" and won't lower hiring or training standards. He said he doesn't "believe we're going to get 10,000 and 5,000 on board within the next couple of years."
Hiring at the Border Patrol, which is overseen by Customs and Border Protection, has already been slow in recent years. About two out of three applicants fail the agency's polygraph exam.
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