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Story highlights

Kelly also insisted DACA recipients were safe

He said he would hold a conference on improving the situation in Central America

(CNN) —  

US Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly on Wednesday assured Senate Democrats he doesn’t intend to separate mothers and children at the border – apparently walking back an earlier statement he made that such a policy could deter people from entering the country illegally.

Kelly met with Senate Democrats Wednesday afternoon for more than an hour on Capitol Hill to discuss the administration’s immigration policy, a meeting that some members left in “frustration” but others called “positive.” Kelly also said he intends to hold a conference this spring on improving conditions in Central America, and discussed the status of deferred action recipients in the wide-ranging meeting.

In response to a question from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Kelly said that DHS wouldn’t be separating mothers and children at the border unless there was an extenuating reason, such as illness, according to several Democrats who attended the meeting.

Kelly later told CNN that characterization was fair, “unless there is some other consideration.” He denied that he had been considering a policy to separate families.

“I don’t think I have said that,” Kelly said. “Wolf Blitzer first asked me about this and I said everything’s on the table, we might under certain circumstances do that, but I don’t think I’ve ever said as a deterrent or something like that.”

Earlier this month, Kelly told Blitzer that he was considering the policy as a deterrent; a senior DHS official also confirmed it.

“Yes I’m considering (that), in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network,” Kelly said at the time. “I am considering exactly that. They will be well cared for as we deal with their parents. … It’s more important to me, Wolf, to try to keep people off of this awful network.”

Feinstein called the meeting satisfying, and said she got assurances on the families issue as well as assurances that there wouldn’t be sweeps of undocumented agricultural workers in California unless they had another violation.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, who organized the meeting, called it “positive” and said it offered him more “clarity,” though “what remains to be seen is what will happen next.” The lawmakers leaving the meeting said they each had a turn to present the secretary with their concerns and cases from their district.

Durbin said he felt there was a “better line of communication with the secretary.”

But not all lawmakers left satisfied.

“I leave with frustration,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, who has raised concerns previously about immigration enforcement actions in her state.

“‘Frustration’ would be a good lead,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington. “He stated he was not separating children from their parents, but that’s not been our experience.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he presented Kelly with several “inhumane” cases he wanted more information on, and added that he would await Kelly’s answers. One such case was a father arrested while on his way to drop off his children at school.

“I asked questions. There’s still answers to come,” said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Kelly said his primary focus is deterring migrants from participating in a smuggling pipeline that takes their life savings, is “incredibly dangerous,” has a “super high” rate of abuse for women and in which “young men are siphoned off” to work for the cartels.

“Please, please, please report that what we’re trying to do is save lives, by encouraging people not to get on that network,” Kelly said. “By the same token, we’re working – and I was briefing the President about this today – we’re working with the Central American republics … with their presidents, with their religious leaders, with their business leaders to have a conference. … So we’re trying to improve the state of life in the Central American republics so the people don’t have to come up here.”

He said the Alliance for Prosperity conference would be in Miami “before the summer” and that Mexico has volunteered to cohost, with Canada and Colombia looking to be observers. Kelly said the conference would be run by the State Department.

Kelly categorically ruled out that his department had arrested any eligible Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient, saying any crimes committed nullify DACA.

“By definition, they’re no longer DACA if they have a violation. The DACA status is a commitment not only by the government toward the DACA person or the so-called Dreamer, but by that person to obey the law. And some of them don’t. We have not picked up – I don’t care what you read or what people say – we have not in my time picked up someone who is covered by DACA.”

Advocacy groups have accused the government of detaining DACA recipients who had not committed any crimes. Several who were detained have since been released.