Former Homeland Security Chief Jeh Johnson
Courtesy Photo

In his three years as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, from 2013 to 2017, Jeh Johnson defended the U.S. against terrorism and cyber-attacks and was credited with major management reforms within the agency. I recently spoke with Johnson over the phone about a number of current political matters, including undocumented immigration, terrorism, and political polarization. His unique insights on national security prescribed new solutions to a variety of issues and provided a hopeful outlook for the future.

Johnson is the 2018 recipient of the Ronald Reagan Peace Through Strength Award and will speak at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Sunday, December 2, at 3 p.m. For tickets, visit UCSB Arts & Lectures.

The following interview has been edited.

What is your opinion on the current administration’s rhetoric and position on immigration? Well, clearly, what they are doing is not working. Last month, there were 60,000 apprehensions on our southern border. That is one of the highest levels in years. You can do certain things to change immigration enforcement policy that will have a short-term effect at best, but as long as the underlying push factors, specifically the poverty and violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, persist, illegal migration is going to persist. We have to address the problem at its source by investing in ways to improve day-to-day life in those three countries.

How would you prescribe a policy that would better address immigration then? Well, I think our Congress got a good start in fiscal year 2016 by appropriating $750 million. And since then, the level of funding support has been going downward, and it needs to go in the opposite direction. So, to be more specific, what I would do is the following:

(1) More immigration judges in the United States to deal with the enormous backlog. We don’t have enough immigration judges, which is one of the reasons why a deportation case takes years. (2) We need to invest in solutions for the poverty and violence in those three countries, help them get on their feet. (3) Support the Mexican government in its own efforts in border security. One of ways that we dealt with the crisis in 2014 was to get the Mexican government to do more on their own border, and it made a tremendous difference. (4) Refugee resettlement processes in other countries in the region so that these migrants have some place to go other than migrating through Mexico to the United States. We should encourage Mexico, Panama, and Costa Rica to develop their own system of asylum and refugee resettlement. (5) You can always invest more in border security — more surveillance, more vehicles, more roads, and more lights. Simply building a wall is not going to solve this problem. We already have a wall in the places where it makes sense.

Under the 14th Amendment, all “persons” have equal protection under the law and the right to due process. Yet, undocumented immigrants are being held at ICE detention centers without adequate due process. How should legislators handle the legality of this kind of situation, and are undocumented immigrants protected by the Constitution? I believe that undocumented immigrants are protected by the U.S. constitution to a very, very large extent, and I believe that undocumented immigrants, specifically children, are entitled to due process, which is why they should have the opportunity to make a case for asylum before an immigration judge. Of course, it is challenging when you have a 7-year-old without his or her parent in an immigration court proceeding.

As long as we have borders and a sovereign nation, we cannot have “catch and release,” where somebody is apprehended and released the next day. That is a system destined to fail. I believe that the problems exist at the source, and there is no level of border security that you can provide that will deter someone from leaving a truly dangerous situation.

Recently, President Trump sent troops to the border in response to the migrant caravan. Do you think this is an appropriate response? No, I don’t think that sending 5,000 or 10,000 active duty members of the military is the answer. There is a limited amount that the military can do at the border. They cannot engage in direct law enforcement or direct border security. The military is not standing on the Rio Grande with rifles and bayonets, which is the image that is conjured up.

There has been a lot of criticism against the Trump administration. Is there anything you think he’s doing right? Well, he certainly can capture people’s attention with his rhetoric. He knows how to dictate the terms of the debate. I think that this administration, specifically the Department of Defense under the leadership of my friend Jim Mattis, has done a good job at continuing and building upon the progress we started in decimating ISIS in Iraq and Syria. At their peak, they had a fighting force of 31,000 people and held large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. They are a fraction of that now. This administration deserves a lot of credit for the efforts they made along with the international coalition to decimate ISIS.

Currently, there are rumors floating around Washington that the current Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen may be resigning. This follows Rex Tillerson’s short tenure as Secretary of State. What characteristics do you think makes a great Homeland Security Secretary? Good question! No one has ever asked me that before.

(1) The ability to lead and manage a very large and decentralized cabinet level department of 230,000 people. (2) A real passion and commitment to the mission of Homeland Security. I was born on September 11, and I’m a New Yorker; 9/11 was on my birthday, and I believe that my dedication to that mission was born on that day. (3) The ability to represent the president to the department and represent the department’s interests to the president. You have a dual role when you’re a cabinet officer in addition to being the CEO of a department. (4) The ability to communicate clearly to the American public the threats and the risks we face without creating a lot of panic and paranoia.

In our current political arena where gridlock and polarization are the new norms, what do you think legislators and American citizens can do to promote a more functioning government and help bridge this gap? I think that the voters should reward elected officials who take political risks and reach across the aisle to get stuff done and not just speak to their base. Voters need to reorient what they think of success in Washington and reward people who are willing to exercise political courage. Politicians who engage in lying and uncivil behavior should have to pay a political cost. At the moment, it doesn’t seem like that’s happening.

Many people from both sides of the aisle are afraid and uncertain of the future. Do you see anything hopeful coming up that you can tell Americans to help soothe some this uncertainty and fear? “Democracies are self-correcting.” I heard my former law partner and mentor Ted Sorensen once say that. I will also quote from my own grandfather who was the President of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. In the month before he died, he wrote this for the New York Times in September 1956 while there was still a segregated South:

“Bitterness grows out of hopelessness, and there is no sense of hopelessness in this situation, however uncomfortable and menacing and humiliating it may be at times. Faith in the ultimate strength of the democratic philosophy and code of the nation as a whole has always been stronger than the impulse to despair.”

Do you have any advice for young people stepping into the political arena? Take the long view. When I was in law school, Ronald Reagan was elected president, and my classmates and I were shell-shocked. We couldn’t believe what had happened. An actor who believes that pollution comes from trees had been elected president. A lot of Senate giants were wiped out the same year, but Ronald Reagan turned out to be, by any objective measure, a pretty good president.

Two year later, when I graduated from Columbia Law School, our graduation speaker was Ambassador Andrew Young, who said that “in your lifetime, you will see and do things beyond your current comprehension.” He was absolutely right because at that moment, in 1982, there was this other black kid, Barack Obama, who was walking around that campus and going to be the first black president, and I was going to be in his cabinet. I wouldn’t have expected either in my lifetime.


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