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Homeland Security secretary says a border wall won't be built all at once

The nation’s top Homeland Security official portrayed himself Tuesday as a steward of President Trump’s vision for border security as he laid out a path to fruition for some of Trump’s most bombastic campaign promises.

In his first appearance on Capitol Hill, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly described plans for safeguards along the border that were more piecemeal than the “big, beautiful wall” Trump has touted.

Kelly said his agency would first build sections of wall and fencing where border agents see an immediate need and fill in gaps with ground sensors, surveillance blimps and other technologies that help detect illegal border crossings, emphasizing that the government lives in “a world of finite time [and] resources.”

“We're not going to be able to build a wall everywhere all at once,” Kelly told the House Homeland Security Committee, adding that Border Patrol agents told him they preferred barriers they could see through rather than a solid wall.

But Kelly also said measures for the “extreme vetting” of travelers were under consideration that go further than visa officers ever have. The Homeland Security Department may demand that some visa applicants trying to enter legally hand over passwords to their social media accounts before flying to the U.S.

“They don’t want to cooperate, they don’t come in,” Kelly said.

In three hours of testimony, Kelly filled in specifics on several national security goals Trump has broadly set. And like a soldier carrying out orders, Kelly, a retired Marine general, shouldered the blame for the haphazard rollout of the president’s order temporarily blocking entry for refugees and all travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, even though he was largely left out of crafting the decree.

“The thinking was to get it out quick so that potentially people that might be coming here to harm us would not take advantage of some period of time that they could jump on an airplane,” Kelly said.

In retrospect, he said, “I should have delayed it just a bit” to prepare lawmakers and the public for the changes that were coming.

The confusion surrounding its implementation is "all on me,” Kelly said, putting himself in the awkward position of apologizing for the execution of a directive he didn’t see until the week it was issued and wasn’t told was coming until the day before it was signed.

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The writing of Trump’s order was limited chiefly to a handful of senior White House advisors, including Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller, and agency lawyers. Lawmakers of both parties condemned the White House over its implementation.

The White House officials who directed the rollout should have come before the committee to “answer for this debacle” rather than Kelly, said Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the panel.

Even committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who advised Trump on the travel restrictions during the transition and defended the president’s decision to implement them, criticized how the directive was put into action.

“The rollout of this executive order has been problematic. It has caused confusion here in Congress, across the country and around the world,” McCaul said.

Homeland Security officials were forced in the hours after the order was signed to scramble to issue instructions to border agents. Amid the uncertainty, some border agents blocked lawful permanent residents from entering the country.

Kelly defended his department's work and insisted that Customs and Border Protection officers were not to blame for the chaos that unfolded at airports, saying the turmoil was not in immigration lines but in arrival halls flooded with protesters and frustrated relatives of people blocked by the order.

Civil liberties advocates and Democrats have criticized the president’s order as unfairly targeting Muslims, pointing to Trump's repeated calls during the campaign to block Muslims from the U.S.

A lawsuit attempting to overturn Trump’s travel ban appeared to be on the fast track to the Supreme Court. Judges on the San Francisco-based U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Tuesday.

Travelers from the countries targeted by Trump’s temporary ban — Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen — have hurried to board flights to the U.S. during what might be a brief window to enter the country while the legal challenges play out.

McCaul was adamant the order didn't target a religious group. “This is not a Muslim ban, and even the suggestion that it is will alienate our allies and embolden” terrorists, he said.

Nonetheless, the administration is also looking at ways to step up background checks on citizens from the seven countries before they travel, such as demanding social media account passwords, Kelly said. Most of those nations have unreliable police forces or lack identity systems to help confirm travelers are who they say they are, he said.

“It is very hard to truly vet these people in these countries,” Kelly said.

Trump’s Jan. 27 order also required the Homeland Security Department to give him a list within 30 days of other countries that do not provide adequate information to border officials, but the agency has stopped work on that part of the order while the courts review it.

“There is no additional list,” Kelly said after the hearing.

Kelly also laid out for lawmakers the lengthy timeline needed to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. Kelly said he wanted to see construction of a wall “well underway” within two years. Costs have been estimated at $12 billion to $38 billion.

And echoing White House complaints, Kelly strongly denied a report in the Washington Post that Bannon had asked him to keep in place the temporary ban on green-card holders being allowed into the U.S. 

“Every paragraph, every sentence … was wrong,” Kelly said. “It was a fantasy story.”

Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) asked whether Kelly had concerns about political advisors pressuring him to act.

“I work for one man. His name is Donald Trump,” Kelly said. “He has told me one thing: ‘Secure the border.’”

To read the article in Spanish, click here

Twitter: @ByBrianBennett

brian.bennett@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

4:40 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with more comments from Kelly and background.

9:45 a.m.: The story was updated with Kelly’s comments on border wall construction and green-card holders.

8:35 a.m.: The story was updated with comments from Kelly.

The story was originally published at 3 a.m.

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