- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Both in public and in private meetings, new Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson readily acknowledges there is a border “problem” that needs fixing — a major departure from his predecessor, Janet Napolitano, whose consistent refrain was that the border was more secure than it had ever been.

Mr. Johnson, by contrast, has shied away from using Ms. Napolitano’s catchphrase, stressing to Congress that more resources are still needed to get the border in shape. And in a private meeting last month with those who want to see stricter enforcement, Mr. Johnson explicitly acknowledged the issues and asked for solutions.

“There was a clear difference. When we met with him, he acknowledged right off the bat that he was well aware there was a problem on the southern border. There was not even a debate about that,” said Rosemary Jenks, government relations manager for NumbersUSA.

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Mr. Johnson, who will appear before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on Wednesday to field questions from lawmakers, has been on the job for nearly six months, and in that time he has built a reputation for soliciting opinions from all sides, including from Ms. Jenks and other groups that fiercely oppose the administration’s enforcement approach.

He’s also held town hall meetings with immigration agents and has made several trips to the country’s borders to see the situation for himself.

His most recent trip came a month ago, when he went to McAllen, Texas, to get a look at the thorniest problem of his young tenure: the surge of unaccompanied minors jumping the border to try to gain a foothold in the U.S.

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Stunned by what he saw, Mr. Johnson has treated it as an all-hands-on-deck situation, tapping his emergency management director as the coordinator between the Border Patrol and the social workers who take custody of the children, and scrambling to find space on military bases to house the children while they are awaiting processing.

But, like Mr. Obama and the broader issue of immigration, Mr. Johnson is drawing fire from both sides of the debate.

Immigrant-rights activists say his agents aren’t moving quickly enough to transfer custody of the children to social workers, breaking a federal law that only lets Homeland Security agents hold the children for 72 hours.

Crackdown supporters, meanwhile, say the Department of Homeland Security has helped encourage the spike in children trying to cross the border by announcing unilateral halts to deportation of some illegal immigrants — a magnet, the groups say, that’s drawing even more immigrants to try to cross the border.

“Secretary Johnson did state clearly he knows he has a problem on the border. But so far I have not seen him make any serious attempt to address the border issues,” said Julie Kirchner, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “Quite frankly it seems like most of the time he’s spent has been reviewing our deportation practices. That seems to be where he’s putting his time, and he’s doing that at the request of the president.”

Mr. Johnson was confirmed to be the new secretary on Dec. 16, easily winning on a 78-16 confirmation vote.

His major government experience before taking the helm of Homeland Security was as the Pentagon’s top lawyer, and his experience with immigration was limited. But he’s been on a crash course to get up to speed, and that’s been welcomed by all sides.

“I think he came in with eyes wide open. One of the really refreshing things has been he didn’t pretend to know more than anybody else. In fact, he came in very humbly, saying in some of the meetings he was in that many of us had far more expertise than he did in these immigration and border-related issues,” said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, who was part of another early May meeting Mr. Johnson held with immigrant-rights advocates.

Indeed, early in his tenure Mr. Johnson has earned a reputation for a willingness to meet with anyone on Capitol Hill and for inviting in “stakeholders” in the immigration debate.

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