By Nancy E. Miller
Jeh Johnson was confirmed on Monday as the new Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). He replaces former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitanto who resigned in order to take a position as head of the University of California. Prior to assuming this new position, Secretary Johnson was General Counsel for the Department of Defense (DoD).
DHS consists of multiple agencies that are directly involved with non-citizens in the United States. These agencies include Citizenship & Immigration Services (CIS), which is responsible for adjudicating applications and petitions for immigrant and non-immigrant status and for naturalization; Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), which responsible for prosecution and enforcement of laws relating to removal; and Customs & Border Patrol (CBP), which includes the officers who conduct interviews of those people seeking to enter the United States.
Of most interest to the immigrant community is exactly how Secretary Johnson sees his job and what he intends to stress as a priority. Because his background is not in immigration, his views in this area were not known prior to his confirmation.
In his letter to Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill) written prior to his confirmation, he stated that he opposes setting quotas or goals for deportation. He stated “I do not believe that deportation quotas or numeric goals are a good idea.” He continued “in my view, immigration enforcement must be focused first on those who pose a threat to our national security, public safety and the integrity of our borders. If confirmed, I intend to continually evaluate the prosecutorial discretion guidelines of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ensure they are consistent with the Department’s enforcement priorities.”
DHS has denied having quotas but they have admitted to setting goals that reflect the agency’s commitment to using the limited resources provided by Congress. That has resulted in the deportation of approximately 400,000 people per year. During Obama’s five years in office, thus far, the agency has deported 1.93 million people. That approaches the total number of people deported during the eight years that George Bush was in office. To put it in another perspective, it is almost as many people as were deported in the 108 years between the administrations of President Benjamin Harrison (when records began to be kept) and that of President Bill Clinton.
Johnson signaled that the agency, under his leadership, would continue the prosecutorial discretion policies created under Napolitano’s term. He said he would “work with ICE leadership to ensure that ICE agents are exercising prosecutorial discretion by focusing on high-priority cases of serious criminals and national security threats rather than low-priority cases.” He also noted that the agency’s current stated priorities “are not sufficiently reflected in DHS’s policies and practices” and that he will “continually monitor the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts … to ensure that we do in fact remain focused on those priorities.”
Earlier this month, Johnson defended the immigration reform bill that had passed the Senate in June. He also has said that he intends to ensure that the implementation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) process continues to be effective. He noted that, as of October 31, approximately 614,000 young people had come forward to request DACA relief. He assured Senator Durbin that, if confirmed, taking all appropriate steps to ensure that the program remains a success would be a priority for him. He did not believe, however, that he was yet in a position to give any details as to what steps he would take to ensure that such is the case.
Secretary Johnson said that he supports the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program and would work with the Defense Department to ensure that the broadest possible class of DACA recipients is able to enlist in the military.
He also stated that he intends to visit immigration detention centers on a regular basis and review conditions of confinement at these centers. He stated that “policies and procedures on issues of solitary confinement, access to lawyers and social services, screening and treatment of those with mental illness, sexual assault prevention and detainee access to phone calls should be carefully and continually evaluated.”
What all this means in the long run remains to be seen. As with most people, we will learn who Secretary Johnson is through his actions as well as his words. For now, we are about to enter a new year; DHS has a new boss; Secretary Johnson begins a new job. May it be a good year for everyone.