By Jonathan Swan and Katie Bo Williams - 12-08-16 06:00 AM EST
By choosing former Marine Gen. John Kelly over Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach - a move confirmed to The Hill Wednesday by a high-level transition source - Trump gains a nominee with extensive experience on the southern border but with less of a penchant for controversy.
While liberal groups are wary of the pick, they were prepared to go on the warpath against immigration hard-liner Kobach, who still might be nominated to be Kelly's deputy.
As head of the sprawling department, Kelly will be at the forefront of Trump's efforts to build a wall along the border with Mexico and round up undocumented immigrants.
The tough-talking general will also be responsible for turning some of Trump's more controversial anti-terrorism proposals, like a Muslim registry or a ban on Muslim immigration, into reality.
Conservative immigration groups remain wary of Kelly - something that could end up helping him in a Senate confirmation battle if it causes lawmakers to see him as a moderate.
Hard-liners praise Kelly for his military expertise and trust he'll build a powerful barrier along the southern border. But they worry he won't crack down hard enough on undocumented workers.
"He's clearly committed to protecting the physical security of Americans; we still don't know how committed he'll be to protecting their economic security," Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said in an email.
Krikorian said he was optimistic that Kelly would be "fully committed" to Trump's agenda.
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, echoed Krikorian's points. He described Kelly as a "great pick" for dealing with border management and national security threats.
"But he will need to backfill his team with several strong immigration policy experts," he added. "And he'll need to show he can stand up to emotion or financially driven special interests that want to roll back the Trump immigration platform."
By choosing Kelly, Trump found a compromise between a candidate beloved by hard-liners - Kobach - and another candidate - Texas Rep. Michael McCaul (R) - who is deeply distrusted, and in some cases outright loathed, by Trump's staunchest right-wing allies. Many of those allies see McCaul as soft on border issues.
Before retiring last winter, Kelly served as the head of U.S. Southern Command, where he worked closely with Homeland Security to disrupt transnational organized crime.
His son, Robert, was killed in combat in Afghanistan. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Trump wanted people on his national security team who personally understand the costs of war.
Through the final phase of his career, Kelly built a reputation as a blunt critic of the Obama administration.
He has described the drug flow and undocumented immigrants crossing the border as "existential" threats to national security, repeatedly warning Congress that the U.S. was severely underestimating and underfunding threats in the region.
Kelly also oversaw Guant namo Bay as the Obama administration moved to shutter the detention facility, despite his belief that Obama's efforts were a mistake. At times, he was accused of intentionally obstructing the process.
Those views earned him swift praise from Republicans, who see him as an ally of tough immigration enforcement with an intimate knowledge of South and Central America.
He's also earned praise from one critical Senate Democrat: Tom Carper (Del.), the ranking member on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.
"General Kelly is a man of steady leadership who has years of experience working with our neighbors in Latin America as commander of U.S. Southern Command," Carper said in a statement that described Kelly as his "friend."
But Kelly's vast experience, in and of itself, will not be enough to satisfy Trump's most ardent supporters on his signature issue.
Roy Beck, who leads the group NumbersUSA - a group that wants to reduce legal immigration as well as deport illegal immigrants - told The Hill he's worried that Kelly will spend his time at the department focused exclusively on terrorism and neglect the issue of undocumented workers.
Beck wants Trump to install senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security, ideally Kobach, who will push for more raids and thorough audits of workplaces to boot out undocumented workers.
"[Kelly's] interest is going to be terrorism and national security," Beck said. "That's where his experience is."
"He will deal with immigration as it relates to terrorism, but in terms of the economic part of immigration," Beck says he's "very nervous about it."
That figures like Beck are nervous about Kelly gives him a far better chance than Kobach of being confirmed by the Senate. The divisive Kansas secretary of state has drafted some of the nation's toughest immigration laws and is seen on the left as a champion of racist policies and on the far right as a crusader for rule of law.
"[Kelly] is better, but at the end of the day I think a lot more people are worried about people like Kobach and Sessions being able to still pull the strings. Gen. Kelly will be the administrator of an organization. It's the policy set forth by other people within Trump's Cabinet that can be very dangerous," said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.).
"It could've been worse, but yet at the same time I don't know enough about him to project that he'll do a good job, a decent job or a bad job," said Rep. Tony C rdenas (D-Calif.).
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) avoided attacking Kelly personally, saying she hoped he would be willing "to stand up for facts, families and the Constitution."
Mike Lillis and Rafael Bernal contributed.