John Kelly was the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) when President Trump’s zero tolerance policy was under consideration, and chief of staff at the White House when the policy was implemented. Now, he is on the board of Caliburn International, which runs the largest facility housing migrant children separated from their families at the border. The effects of the zero tolerance policy have been catastrophic, and as many as 55 children still have still not been reunited with their families–with no existing records that would link them. That hasn’t stopped Kelly from cashing in on the policy he supported now that he has left the government. 

Just a few months into Trump’s presidency, then-Secretary Kelly confirmed that the administration was considering a hard line approach to illegal immigration that would include separating children from their families if they crossed the southern border illegally. He said the approach could deter immigration and assured the public that “we have tremendous experience of dealing with unaccompanied minors. We turn them over to (Health and Human Services) and they do a very, very good job of putting them in foster care or linking them up with parents or family members in the United States.”

The zero tolerance policy was officially announced on April 6, 2018, when Kelly was White House chief of staff. After backlash about the policy, Kelly defended it on NPR, saying “it could be a tough deterrent” and that he would not characterize the policy as cruel, saying that “[the] children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.”

As we have seen in the past year, in his advocacy for the policy Kelly overstated the administration’s ability to care for unaccompanied children and link them with their parents. Many children are still separated from their families, with no records that can be used to reunite them. CREW is in litigation against the administration about the recordkeeping failures that have kept children separated from their families.

On May 8, 2019, in an interview about his time at the White House, he went out of his way to describe the detention centers in positive terms, explaining that they are “purely for humanitarian purposes.” Kelly did not mention that he is now on the board of Caliburn International, which runs the largest of the facilities that he praised. That Kelly now stands to profit from the continued effects of a disastrous policy that he advocated for while he was DHS Secretary and White House chief of staff demonstrates how the revolving door spins between government and industry. 

Kelly is just the latest in a pattern of former Trump administration officials leaving their government jobs to work in the private sector in industries they regulated. Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is now working for a gold mining company. Former EPA head Scott Pruitt is now lobbying for coal companies. Though President Trump ran on a promise to drain the swamp, his former senior officials instead are examples of exactly how the swamp works–at the expense of families and the environment.  


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