Legislative Activity

Lawmakers Pledge Regular Reauthorization of Homeland Security Agency

On Wednesday, January 11, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) released a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by chairmen of eight House committees with jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The MOU serves as an agreement between the eight lawmakers to work together to regularly authorize, reform, and improve DHS, which has not been reauthorized since its formation in 2002.  The MOU was signed amid what the House Homeland Security Committee calls an “evolving threat environment,” as well as Chairman Mike McCaul’s (R-TX) efforts to consolidate jurisdiction over DHS under his panel.

In a statement, Rep. McCaul stated “We are finally on a solid path to overhaul the Department of Homeland Security and make sure it stays ahead of threats to our country…I look forward to working hand-in-hand with my colleagues in the House, the Senate, and the new Administration to reauthorize DHS and ensure it is equipped to protect the United States and our people more effectively, efficiently, and decisively.”

In the MOU, the chairmen agree that DHS must be authorized “on a regular basis to ensure robust oversight and improve its operation” and that each committee will work together to develop “comprehensive” reauthorization legislation. The chairmen also commit to making “best efforts” to resolve policy disputes relating to aspects of DHS reauthorization.

Senate Panel Considers Trump DHS Secretary Nominee

On Tuesday, January 10, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) held a hearing to consider the nomination of General John F. Kelly to be DHS Secretary. The hearing focused primarily on General Kelly’s views on cybersecurity, drug trafficking, counterterrorism, and immigration policy.  General Kelly largely received bipartisan praise from members of the Committee, who expressed confidence in his ability to lead the sprawling agency. Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) urged the Senate to confirm General Kelly on the first day of President-Elect Trump’s administration.

Ranking Member Claire McCaskill (D-MO) expressed hope that General Kelly’s experience as Commander of U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom) would assist in the development of a comprehensive and inclusive approach to addressing immigration and border issues at DHS. She is also encouraged by General Kelly’s past statements on engaging law enforcement, medical and rehabilitation organizations, and local communities to implement a comprehensive drug demand reduction campaign to address the U.S. opioid epidemic.

In his opening statement, General Kelly described his experience in senior command positions in the U.S. military and previous coordination with government agencies, Congress, and the private sector to address current and emerging threats. He highlighted his intent to provide “his full candor and honest recommendations” when advising the President and repeatedly emphasized the importance of “speaking truth to power.” He recognized the “many challenges” facing DHS and expressed his desire to work closely with the Committee to protect the United States from homeland security threats.

Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), John McCain (R-AZ), and Maggie Hassan (D-NH), focused on General Kelly’s previous experience handling drug trafficking efforts in Central and South America as SouthCom Commander. General Kelly stated that a physical barrier along the U.S. southern border alone will be insufficient in stopping the flow of illicit drugs into the U.S. and advocated for a “layered defense,” in which physical barriers are supported by sensors, patrol units, observation devices, and UAVs. He also highlighted the importance of partnering with countries in Southern and Central America to disrupt drug production and transportation operations, which he called the most effective means of restricting the flow of drugs into the U.S.

In a more pressing line of questioning, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) stressed that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program enrollees relied on the federal government’s representation that information acquired during DACA enrollment would not be used for deportation purposes. General Kelly stated that while he had not been involved in the President-Elect’s discussions on the use of such data in the context of immigration reform, he believed that non-criminal DACA enrollees would not be a high priority for deportation. Senator James Lankford (R-OK) asked General Kelly to address “sanctuary cities” and his intent to work with local jurisdictions that “refuse to cooperate” with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. General Kelly noted that while he understands the perspectives of some local leaders who have implemented sanctuary policies, he stated that he could not “pick and choose” which laws would be followed, calling such action “dangerous.”  General Kelly stressed the importance of working closely with international partners and enhancing information sharing between foreign governments and the U.S. in support of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Executive Branch Activity

Obama Administration Ends “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” Policy for Eligible Cuban Nationals

This week, the Obama Administration announced that it would be a revoking long-standing exemption from deportation under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-208) benefiting eligible Cuban nationals.  The Act grants the federal government the authority to place undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. by sea or by air in “expedited removal proceedings.” Subsequent notices expanding the use of authority granted under the Act have included exemptions for Cuban nationals, who have been provided protected status since 1995.  Effective January 13, previously-eligible Cuban nationals who reach the United States will no longer automatically benefit from legal permanent status and a pathway to citizenship, ending the two-decade old so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy.

“Effective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal,” Obama said. “By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries.” The decision to end the policy was reportedly made in agreement with the Cuban government.