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In Detroit, Homeland Security chief hears immigration concerns, but "can't ignore the law"

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, with Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, discuss Kelly's visit near Detroit's Ambassador Bridge.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, with Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, discuss Kelly's visit near Detroit's Ambassador Bridge.

A handful of people representing some of Metro Detroit’s immigrant and religious communities met privately with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly Monday.

That was one reason for Kelly’s brief visit to Detroit, which also included talk on security and infrastructure along the country’s northern border.

Kelly held small, private meetings with hand-picked members of the Arab, Muslim, and Latino communities. The idea was to air concerns about the Trump Administration’s immigration policies.

Those include the “travel ban” from some predominantly Muslim nations, perceptions of certain groups being singled out for border detention and aggressive interrogations, immigration raids and changing deportation priorities.

At a press conference held afterward in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge, Kelly insisted that “no one is targeted” at the nation’s borders for reasons “based on race, color, or politics.”

Kelly said there was “conversation” about that during the private meeting today. One attendee said it became contentious when Kelly was challenged about a number of reported unlawful detentions by U.S. customs officials, many of them involving Muslims.

But Kelly vehemently defended Customs and Border Protection personnel, saying their actions and policies stem from security concerns, not discrimination. “And I reject anyone who makes that claim,” Kelly said.

As for concerns about immigration raids and the expanding number of targets for deportation, Kelly had little reassurance to offer.

He said he’s “sworn to uphold the law,” even if it may not be ideal. But it’s up to lawmakers to change that, he said.

Meanwhile, “We’ve got to do something. We’re almost at a crisis right now, because you’ve got 11 million people in America that are below the radar,” Kelly said. “Most of them are not bad people to say the least. Some of them are. We’re after the worst of the worst, if you will, but I can’t ignore the law.

“The laws should be changed if they’re not good. And if they are good, expect them to be enforced.”

Kelly also toured facilities at the Detroit-Windsor international crossing with Michigan Senator Gary Peters, who helped arrange Kelly’s visit.

“This is a very different border” from its southern counterpart, Kelly said, noting that “commerce is key.” He said the Trump Administration, despite its condemnations of NAFTA and desire to re-negotiate the trade deal, is committed to keeping business flowing.

Kelly says even as the Trump Administration cracks down on border security, Canadians should still find it easy to enter the country.

He insists he can’t understand why some Canadian school districts have recently banned school trips to the U.S. because of concerns about Trump’s executive orders on immigration.

“None of those individuals in Canada would be affected by what is the EO that we’re operating under,” Kelly said. “I don’t get it, but it’s their business, and if they feel that way that’s their loss, I guess.”

Kelly insists “no one in Canada legally” with the “proper paperwork,” even newly-arrived refugees or immigrants, has anything to worry about, though some recent reported incidents at the border seem to contradict that.

Dr. Yahya Basha, a naturalized Syrian-American who attended one of the private meetings with Kelly, said Kelly seemed to sympathize with some concerns about the travel ban, especially what Basha called the “harshness” of not being able to see relatives overseas.

Basha said Kelly indicated there may be some changes to that policy “in progress,” though he wasn’t clear on what that meant, or how much influence Kelly might have on the process.

But Basha says it seems clear the White House’s temporary ban on refugees will likely become long term. And Kelly insisted the travel restrictions are truly about preventing terrorism, not discriminating against Muslims.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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