Kelly spoke at Duke University about his time initially working as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and eventually as Trump’s right-hand man. The retired four-star general left his chief of staff position in late December.
During his talk Wednesday, Kelly said that a full “sea to shining sea” border wall would be a “waste of money.” Kelly made a similar comment in April 2017 as DHS secretary, saying he’s “not going to build a wall where it doesn’t make sense. But we’ll do something across the southwest border.”
Kelly’s former boss, meanwhile, has long called for wall funding, a demand that even contributed to the January 2018 government shutdown ― nearly a year before the record-breaking wall shutdown that was ongoing when Kelly left the White House.
Kelly also distanced himself Wednesday from Trump’s perception of immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The president frequently uses fearmongering language to paint migrant families and asylum-seekers as criminals.
“They’re overwhelmingly not criminals,” Kelly said. “They’re people coming up here for economic purposes. I don’t blame them for that.”
The remark was a bit of a pivot from Kelly’s past comments on immigrants. In February 2018, he said Trump’s proposed path to citizenship for people eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, including those who didn’t sign up, was generous because it would help undocumented immigrants who are “too lazy” to seek protections. He later doubled down on his comments, saying people “just should have probably gotten off the couch and signed up.”
In May 2018, Kelly also told NPR that immigrants who come to the U.S. illegally are “not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society.”
“They don’t integrate well,” he said at the time. “They don’t have skills.”
Kelly on Wednesday defended himself in regard to Trump’s zero-tolerance policy on border crossings, which resulted in family separations and missing migrant children, saying the policy “came as a surprise” to him and current DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. He made similar comments in December, putting the blame on former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who announced the policy in which those found to be illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border would be criminally prosecuted.
Sessions “was the one that instituted the zero-tolerance process on the border that resulted in both people being detained and the family separation,” Kelly told The Los Angeles Times. “He surprised us.”
But a March 2017 interview with CNN revealed that Kelly himself suggested separating families to deter unauthorized immigration. When asked if the Trump administration was considering separating migrant children from their parents, he said, “Yes, I am considering in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network. I am considering exactly that.”
In May 2018, Kelly told NPR that migrant children separated from their parents “will be taken care of ― put into foster care or whatever.”
Kelly on Wednesday said that working for the Trump administration may have been his “least” favorite job, but said it was his most important one, stressing that it was his civic duty. He also joked that he told current chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to “run for it.”