Advocates: Kelly went ‘too far’ telling Congress fix laws or ‘shut up’

Rosie Hidalgo of Casa de Esperanza talks as part of a panel at the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda conference, where 46 groups met to assess the first months of the Trump administration. (Photo by Tyler Fingert/Cronkite News)

In a speech Tuesday reviewing the Department of Homeland Security’s progress since January, Secretary John Kelly said congressional critics should change the immigration laws or “shut up.” (Photo by Ziyi Zeng/Cronkite News)

Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly’s comments a day earlier “exceedingly disappointing.” (Photo by Andres Guerra Luz/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Immigration advocates Wednesday called for Congress to play a bigger role in checking executive power, saying the Trump administration is causing an “unprecedented level of anxiety, confusion and fear” in immigrant communities.

The remarks came one day after Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said that lawmakers who are unhappy with the way his department is enforcing immigration laws need to either change those laws or “shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.”

“No one should be instructed to ‘shut up’ or ‘get in line’ with respect to any policy,” said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Our Constitution demands more.”

But Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said Kelly was right to point out that he is just enforcing the laws that are on the books.

That was the thrust of a February memo from Kelly that revoked a number of Obama administration policies and directed Homeland Security personnel on “the enforcement of the immigration laws of the United States.”

“Only Congress can make laws,” Mehlman said. “If there are laws that members of Congress don’t like, that’s their job to change them.”

That’s not likely to happen after voters put Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, he said.

“Elections have consequences,” Mehlman said. “President Trump was elected, the members of Congress were elected by the people, so they get to decide the policies right now.”

Saenz said statements like Kelly’s are “exceedingly disappointing” from a high-level administration official and show his “disrespect” toward Congress’ role in the government. Kelly’s remarks reflect the “desperation” of an administration “swimming against the political tide” of the majority who disagree with its policies, Saenz said.

Saenz’s comments came during a national meeting for advocacy groups to assess President Donald Trump’s first months in office.

The coalition of 46 Latino organizations from across the country issued a policy agenda in 2016 that runs through 2020. Those policies touch on everything from gender equality to environmental protection, health care and immigration. But immigration is “the singularly important issue” that the coalition is focused on, Saenz said.

The chairman of the coalition, Hector Sanchez, said Latino communities have come under “serious attack” from Trump’s administration in these first few months and are planning ways to protect their residents.

-Cronkite News video by Tyler Fingert

“At the same time that we defend our community, we are also on the offense,” Sanchez said in a statement released at the summit. “Latinos will not sit quietly as our rights are attacked.”

Rosie Hidalgo, a spokeswoman for domestic violence center Casa de Esperanza, said that Kelly’s February memo in “one fell swoop” removed protections for immigrants that aimed to build trust with police. At the same time, the loose restrictions on enforcement have empowered immigration officers to “test the limits” of what they can do, she said.

Under memos from the previous administration, she said, immigrants reporting crimes were shielded from questions about their immigration status. And certain places, like courthouses and churches, were off limits for Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials looking to detain suspected undocumented immigrants.

Without those protections, Hidalgo said, immigrants are becoming more scared to report crimes and go to courthouses for legal protection.

Hidalgo said Kelly’s comments Tuesday was an effort to “silence people.”

But voting rights advocates said at the event that they intend to keep speaking up.

Lydia Camarillo, the vice president of the San Antonio-based Southwestern Voter Registration Education Project, said the Latino electorate in the U.S. is “growing dramatically,” pointing to last year’s ouster of longtime Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio as proof of Hispanic voting power.

She said Arizona’s Latino population is very engaged and the suggestion that they are not engaged as a voting bloc is “absolutely, categorically wrong.” Those voters will continue to increase their participation, Camarillo said, and increase their role in elections.

Until then, Mehlman said, critics can’t complain about the new administration’s enforcement of the laws or its use of executive orders and departmental guidance like Kelly’s.

Mehlman said that people who challenge the Trump administration’s executive actions didn’t do so when Obama issued directives – because they agreed with those policies.

“You can’t say President Obama has free rein to change policies at will because we like them, but nobody else can come along and rescind those changes,” Mehlman said. “You can’t have it both ways.”