Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told Congress Wednesday that he wants to try to keep the department’s drones focused on border security — though he didn’t rule out lending them out to other law enforcement agencies for serious investigations.
Mr. Johnson, who has been on the job little more than two months, was peppered with a number of questions about department policies and practices he inherited from his predecessor, and indicated he was reviewing many of them.
He said he’s looking into whether immigration adjudicators should be doing more face-to-face interviews to try to weed out bad applications for legalization or immigration benefits, particularly with the prospect of a major legalization bill working its way through Congress.
And he also said he’s working on a final report about how much of the illegal immigration problem is a result of foreigners coming to the U.S on visas but staying past their expiration date.
“I have seen a draft of the report. I think it needed further work. And I think that there were some things that I wanted to have some second or third opinions about before I shared it with Congress,” he said.
On drones, Mr. Johnson said he will look into the department’s policy after being told that one of its component agencies, Customs and Border Protection, has lent its drones to state and local police hundreds of times.
“There may be some instances where, for a very important law enforcement objective, we might support some local law enforcement’s efforts at drug trafficking or something of that nature. So I wouldn’t rule that out. But the principal reason they are there is border security,” Mr. Johnson told Rep. Scott Perry, Pennsylvania Republican.
Mr. Perry said if the department is able to loan the drones out so often, it looks like it has excess capacity and could stand some budget cuts.
Mr. Johnson was confirmed as secretary in mid-December and now oversees a sprawling department that covers everything from the U.S. Secret Service to immigration to emergency management.
He has promised to be more responsive to Congress’s requests for information, and repeatedly promised Wednesday to get back to lawmakers whose inquiries have gone unanswered for months.
He also promised to work on a long-overdue definition of border security. Four years ago, the administration scrapped the existing definition of “operational control,” which measured how many miles of the border the U.S. Border Patrol felt it could reasonably detect and deter illegal crossings.
But since then, the department has failed to come up with a new yardstick, despite repeated demands from Congress — and a warning that without a definition, Capitol Hill may not be able to pass an immigration overhaul.
Mr. Johnson said he wants to come up with a definition that measures not just traffic but at “motives,” such as whether those crossing illegally are dangerous criminals or pose lesser threats, and what countries they are from.
“I would urge us to not focus simply on a percentage, which tends to disregard certain other very important things. And so it’s something that I’m committed to,” he said. “And I think in order to further immigration reform overall, we ought to settle on a set of metrics that we all agree to and understand.”