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Trump Chooses Retired General John Kelly As Homeland Security Secretary


The next secretary of Homeland Security will face a tough job. He'll oversee a vast agency, keep track of security threats and also oversee the execution of some high-profile campaign promises by President-elect Trump.

He talked about building a wall on the Mexican border and deporting millions of undocumented immigrants. He seems to have scaled back both promises. But Trump's actual approach remains unclear. It's widely reported that the president-elect's choice is John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general.

If picked, he'd be the third retired general to be chosen as a top Trump adviser. As we await an announcement, we called up a man who once ran the DHS. During the last Bush administration, Michael Chertoff occupied the office that could soon go to Gen. Kelly.

What is your take on the Trump administration's approach to border security? Do you anticipate that the administration will take a more militarized approach to border security?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I don't know that it's going to be more militarized. As I've watched the discussion get fleshed out a little bit, it seems that the movement has been more to a comprehensive and layered approach to border security rather than strictly building a big physical wall at the border.

But I think it's the combination of technology, the combination of being able to deploy resources quickly at the border. And I think that's exactly the kind of analysis that Gen. Kelly will have the experience to deal with because he'll have dealt with similar issues in his military career.

MARTIN: When you were at the helm of DHS, you built up roughly 650 miles of fencing along the border at different locations. Do you think building a wall, as Donald Trump has called for, is a good idea?

CHERTOFF: So yeah, I mean, I personally welded some of the fence myself.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

CHERTOFF: I think if you see the southern border, you see there maybe are 700 miles where fence adds value or barriers add value because they slow up the ability of people to cross. And that gives you the time to intercept them.

Where you're dealing with the Rio Grande river, where it's wide, or you're dealing with a mountain range, honestly, a fence or a wall doesn't add much value. What you really want to do is be in a position to deploy surveillance radar and then intercept people coming across the border.

So to me, this is a question of, what is the right practical mix of physical barriers and infrastructure and technology that will give you the ability to finally get operational control over the entire southern border?

MARTIN: Which is, we should point out, something that Gen. Kelly has said himself in an interview last summer with Foreign Policy. He said, no wall will work by itself. I wonder where you think immigration reform falls into this multilayered plan.

That's something that you worked on when you were part of George W. Bush's cabinet. That plan ultimately failed. Do you still think there's a real need for comprehensive immigration reform?

CHERTOFF: I do. But I - you know, again our approach was to first deal with closing the border loopholes and reducing the flow of illegal immigration. That requires not only blocking at the border. But it involves dealing with employers who hire people who are here without authorization.

The second thing you need to do, though, is - you need to create a temporary worker program because there are certain sectors of the economy that cannot perform economically using just American workers because no Americans want to do the jobs. I mean, you're not getting a lot of young Americans who want to become agricultural workers or, you know, housekeepers in motels.

MARTIN: Although, that's different than what the rhetoric out of Donald Trump's campaign, at least, had been, which was that these people were taking jobs from American workers.

CHERTOFF: I think the reality is, if you look at a large number of jobs being done by people who come across illegally, they're doing jobs no one else wants to do. I guess you could pay, you know, 15 or $20 an hour. But then an apple would cost, you know, $16. And that's not going to work economically.

So I do think there's a space for a program for temporary workers. And, frankly, what that would do is take some - a lot of the incentive away for the illegal border crossings. And then that would help our border-security people focus their attention on those that you really worry about, which are people crossing for illegal purposes.

MARTIN: What does success and border security look like to you? Do you have to have a border that's 100 percent secure? Can you even?

CHERTOFF: Well, no. Nothing is 100 percent secure in life. But operational control means that maybe 75, 80 percent of the people crossing we can apprehend. I also have to point out, though, that almost half of the people here illegally have come in legally and have overstayed.

MARTIN: The budget is huge for the DHS.


MARTIN: Billions of dollars have been spent on trying to secure the border. And yet we're still in this place where everyone says, you know, it's a crisis. And we've got to fix it. So has that money just been misspent? I mean, is it just the allocation of resources?


MARTIN: Or what's not working?

CHERTOFF: I think, in fairness, there has been a lot of progress made. Actually, the flow across the border has diminished. I think a couple of things, though, have created a little bit of a reversal. One is conditions in Central America have worsened.

And now you have people who are coming up not just to find jobs but because they're afraid of getting killed. And that's - you know, it takes an awful lot to stop a person from trying to save their own life. So part of the solution now, I think, is to work to get some stability in the region. The other thing is I think there was some messaging that came out of the current administration about being able to stay in the country and getting any kind of amnesty.

That winds up actually creating an incentive for people to try to sneak in. So by having a principle of strong enforcement, you actually signal that it's not so attractive to sneak in. And that makes it a lot easier to keep people out.

MARTIN: Michael Chertoff, former head of the Department of Homeland Security and the executive chairman of The Chertoff Group, thanks so much for your time.

CHERTOFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Prior to moving into the host position in the fall of 2012, Martin started as National Security Correspondent for NPR in May 2010. In that position she covered both defense and intelligence issues. She traveled regularly to Iraq and Afghanistan with the Secretary of Defense, reporting on the US wars and the effectiveness of the Pentagon's counterinsurgency strategy. Martin also reported extensively on the changing demographic of the US military – from the debate over whether to allow women to fight in combat units – to the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. Her reporting on how the military is changing also took her to a US Air Force base in New Mexico where the military for a rare look at how the military trains drone pilots.
Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.