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.
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.
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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.
He even publicly committed to meet with Chris Crane, president of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, which represents interior enforcement agents and officers.
“Since taking office six months ago, Secretary Johnson has clearly articulated his vision for the Homeland Security department and demonstrated his steadfast commitment to greater transparency, improving relationships with Congress and engaging the greater public on important homeland security issues, including immigration,” a department official said.
He’s tried to push transparency by having ICE, Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security itself release their use-of-force policies for agents and officers.
Mr. Johnson is also in the middle of a review, mandated by President Obama, to try to inject a more humane approach into the government’s deportation policies. So far he’s done little to tip his hand about what he might recommend — though immigrant-rights activists say he is under intense pressure to announce a broad halt to deportations as soon as possible.
Mr. Obama asked Mr. Johnson to delay announcing the results of the review until at least the end of July so as not to spook congressional Republicans, who are still debating whether to try to pass immigration legislation this year.
For now, that leaves the surge in children trying to jump the border as the most prominent problem facing the new secretary.
The scope has only become clear in recent weeks, with his department’s demographers estimating more than 90,000 unaccompanied children will be apprehended on the border this fiscal year, and more than 140,000 next year.
Agents say many of the children are actually turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents knowing that they will be processed and turned over to relatives here in the U.S. or placed with foster families, all with the chance to apply for asylum or even a special juvenile visa.
Mr. Johnson doesn’t have much leeway — federal law requires his agents turn the children over to social workers within 72 hours, and while they are still subject to deportation, they are sent to live with relatives or foster families.
And there’s little the administration can do to stem the violent conditions or poor economies pushing many of the children to flee Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
But Mr. Johnson is targeting the smuggling cartels that are facilitating much of the traffic, and which are spreading rumors of a potential amnesty for those that make it into the U.S.
A department official said Mr. Johnson has called for “criminally targeting” the smuggling networks, making that a top priority.
Already facing a morale problem within ICE, Mr. Johnson now must also manage a morale problem within the Border Patrol, where agents say they are disheartened to be pulled off the line to “baby-sit” the children — only to know that most of them are going to be released to relatives in the U.S. anyway.
It’s not just the children where the border numbers are looking worse. Overall apprehensions on the border are up for a third straight year, according to the latest statistics — 74 percent in the Rio Grande Valley, which is where most of the children are entering, and 15 percent borderwide.
Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, both Arizona Republicans who are watching the influx in their state, said in a joint statement that the numbers are a stark reminder of the work still to do on the border: “For too long this administration has been preoccupied with telling Americans the border is as secure as ever. These events prove it is not.”