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3 things you should know about Gen. John Kelly

Photo: AFSC

On Jan 10, Gen. John Kelly faced the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to answer questions related to his nomination for Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Kelly is one of at least six confirmation hearings this week for cabinet posts, and Sen. Chuck Schumer has claimed that “Senate Republicans are trying to ram [nominees] through as quickly as possible.” The frenzied schedule virtually guarantees that concerns about individual nominees won’t get the attention that such important decisions deserve. 

The Department of Homeland Security is a sprawling organization encompassing seven agencies ranging from FEMA to the Secret Service to the three agencies that deal with immigration processing and enforcement. The big question: Is Gen. Kelly the right person to head it?

To help answer that, here are three things that you should know about Gen. Kelly.

1. Gen. Kelly’s background is entirely military.

Most recently, he served for three years under President Obama as the as head of SouthCOM, the head of U.S. military forces in Central and South America. In this role he was tasked with militarily defending the U.S. from threats. DHS is responsible for several things, including protecting the U.S., but also processing and accepting immigrants. There is nothing in the general's background that qualifies him for this role.

In fact, he has made statements that demonstrates a decidedly anti-immigrant stance. For example, in 2014 he called the influx of migrants from Latin America an existential threat to the U.S.


2. Gen. Kelly is a big fan of Guantanamo.

Gen. Kelly was relieved as the head of SouthCom partly because he disagreed with President Obama on the closure of Guantanamo. Before Congress, he called Guantanamo a model of detention for the world. This statement was despite the fact that detainees have been held there for over a decade, many with no formal charges against them, and have been subjected to interrogation techniques that the Red Cross described as “tantamount to torture.” In a 2014 interview, he told The Washington Post that criticism of the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo by human rights groups and others was “foolishness.’’

These views make him a disturbing pick to oversee various large detention systems that operate under DHS, many of which are already facing lawsuits due to inhumane conditions.


3. Gen. Kelly has shown disregard for human rights internationally.

Gen. Kelly frequently speaks about human rights, but circumvents human rights laws when convenient. For example, in 2014 he testified before Congress that he appreciates working with our Colombian partners because they are willing to train whoever we ask them to–including forces he was barred from training by U.S. law due to their past human rights abuses.

In addition, as head of SouthCom he consistently criticized restrictions placed on military financing to the Guatemalan government, despite the fact that these restrictions had been requested and praised by U.S. and Guatemalan human rights groups and victims of gross violations of human rights seeking justice. These restrictions were based on crimes, including genocide, committed by Guatemalan forces in the 1980s, but also on more recent abuses documented by the U.S. State Department committed by Guatemalan police and military.


Faith communities, including the American Friends Service Committee, had called on senators to raise serious questions about these issues. In the hearing, Sen. McCain asked pointed questions about the general’s views on torture, Sen. Peters inquired about the general’s views on the proposed Muslim registry, Sen. Harris asked about how information submitted to DHS by DACA recipients would be used, and Sen. McCaskill sparred with him over push versus pull factors of migration from Central America.

However, considering the immense scope of the Department of Homeland Security, the hearing was disappointing. Gen. Kelly will have broad powers to set policies that impact the lives of millions of people living in the U.S. and abroad. His support for border militarization and detention, and selective disregard for human rights, is cause for concern. Coverage of his confirmation is likely be lost in the frenzy of hearings, but we hope that members of Congress won’t stop asking these questions after today. We’ll certainly keep pushing them to.

About the Author

Kathryn Johnson served as the Policy Advocacy Coordinator with AFSC's Office for Public Policy and Advocacy. Before joining AFSC, they were a Field Organizer for Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch where they educated and mobilized constituents against the Trans Pacific Partnership.