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Homeland Security secretary ‘fully confident’ in legality of Obama’s immigration action

Last week, President Obama announced executive orders to defer deportation relief to nearly 5 million immigrants and expand border security. Now the task of implementation falls on the Department of Homeland Security. Secretary Jeh Johnson joins Gwen Ifill to discuss the controversy surrounding the president’s action and what message it sends to those who want to cross the border illegally.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Last Thursday, President Obama announced he would take steps to reform the U.S. immigration system without the approval of Congress. Among other things, the president’s executive orders will defer deportations for up to five million immigrants, in addition to expanding border security.

    That task falls to the Department of Homeland Security.

    Secretary Jeh Johnson is just back from a trip to the U.S. Mexico border. And he joins us now.

    Before we turn to the discussion about immigration, I have to ask you a little bit about Ferguson, Secretary Johnson. How is the federal government or is it bracing for whatever happens there tonight?

  • JEH JOHNSON, Secretary of Homeland Security:

    Well, Gwen, we have enhanced the presence of the Federal Protective Service around federal buildings in the Saint Louis area.

    The largest — the larger point, I think, I would like to make, however, is, however the grand jury comes out on this, it’s important that, as the president said last week, those who are disappointed by the grand jury’s verdict can engage in peaceful demonstration, can engage in First Amendment-protected activity without turning to violence.

    People who are disappointed by the process should find ways to channel their disappointment and their energy into positive forms of engagement to bring about change to the process that they’re disappointed with.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And to lean away from violence.

  • JEH JOHNSON:

    Yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I want to turn to immigration.

    How — you went to the border last weekend, after the president’s announcement.

  • JEH JOHNSON:

    I have been to the border many times.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Many times.

    But after — in the wake of the president’s announcement, how was that received and what was the purpose of your visit?

  • JEH JOHNSON:

    The purpose of my visit to South Texas, where I visited a number of times over the summer, was first and foremost to meet with the work force there, the Border Patrol agents, our immigration enforcement officials, to review with them the executive orders and the changes in policies that we’re making.

    I feel as though I have gotten to know that work force in particular. And so I wanted to meet with them first in my numerous engagements that I will be having with our work force around the country to explain our policies. And, after that, we had a press engagement.

    One of the things that I wanted to do, which I will be doing over the next several weeks, is to highlight the border security components of our executive actions, the things we are doing to bolster border security and to prioritize recent illegal arrivals in this country.

    We need to send a message that the executive actions the president directed last week are for those who have been in this country for a number of years, who have become integrated members of society. The reality is that they were not going to be removed and deported from this country. And those who are not criminals, who don’t have a criminal record, but who have kids in this country who are citizens, lawful permanent residents, will not be priorities.

    De facto, they have not been priorities for years, and so we’re simply acknowledging that. But we’re also emphasizing the elements of border security in our executive actions to say, if you are a recent arrival here or you’re contemplating coming here illegally, you will be a priority for removal.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But, as you know, the president came in for some criticism in the manner in which he imposed this executive order, announced this executive order. At the same time, though, a lot of people who applauded him doing this criticized the border security component and said it’s a little too tough.

  • JEH JOHNSON:

    Well, our executive actions have many components to them.

    It’s important, in our view, that while we exercise prosecutorial discretion, and we have to make the hard choices for the benefit of public safety, border security, a lot of that should include sending the message that our border is not open to future illegal migration.

    And so — and we came out with that policy with the support of the enforcement community in DHS to send the message that we are going to prioritize going forward those who would come here illegally.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, many Republicans in Congress, in fact, even the governor-elect of Texas, where you just were, have said that the president overreached here, that the Office of Legal Counsel document supporting his action really didn’t give him the power to do what he did. What is your response?

  • JEH JOHNSON:

    Well, the Office of Legal Counsel is like the Supreme Court of the executive branch. They are the lawyers who provide legal opinions for how the executive branch should govern itself.

    We took a very hard look at what we believed we had legal authority to do. We spent a lot of time with lawyers. And the president is satisfied and I am satisfied that…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You’re — by the way, you’re a lawyer, too.

  • JEH JOHNSON:

    I’m a lawyer, too. I enjoy now being a client.

    But we are satisfied we have within our existing legal authority considerable flexibility to revise and reform our priorities. There are a number of things that we identified that we should do to fix the broken immigration system without action from Congress.

    It would have been preferable if Congress had acted, but we waited over to a period of years. And there are things that we can do that are compelling things that need to be done to fix the system that we can do by way of executive action.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And you just disagree with that reading of that Office of Legal Counsel document?

  • JEH JOHNSON:

    No, absolutely not. I have…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I mean the reading of the Republicans of this, the ones who say that the document doesn’t say what you say it says?

  • JEH JOHNSON:

    I am fully confident that our lawyers in OLC reached a correct judgment and that the actions we are taking are well within our legal authority.

    I could not publicly promote something if I didn’t think there was legal authority for it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What do you say to people who look at this action and say you’re basically going to send the signal to another wave of illegal immigrants that it’s fine, that it’s OK to come in now and that the president is saying, you all come?

  • JEH JOHNSON:

    Well, that’s why it’s important that we continue to highlight that the new policy draws a sharp distinction between past and future.

    For those who have been here for years, who are integrated members of society, who have children who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, and who are not criminals, the reality is that we don’t have the resources to invest in trying to deport those people. We need to focus on those convicted of crimes, those who represent national security threats and securing our borders.

    The new policy does that in a very clear and concise way, and we are going to send the message that, in the future, those who come here illegally will be priorities for removal. That’s what the new policy says. And so I will continue to highlight that. We are building additional detention space for any future potential spikes in illegal immigration next year.

    We’re opening a facility in two weeks, and I will be present for the opening of that facility.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    One of the — what do you consider to be — one of the things that didn’t get a lot of notice was the ending of the Secure Communities program, which would allow local — local law enforcement to share things like digital fingerprints with federal authorities.

    Why did you end that? That was not — that didn’t get a lot of the attention.

  • JEH JOHNSON:

    Well, the sharing of the fingerprints will continue.

    The overarching goal of Secure Communities is to better enable my department to get to local and state authorities to transfer to us those who are undocumented who are criminals. The overarching goal is…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    It wasn’t working?

  • JEH JOHNSON:

    It had become very politically controversial. It had become legally controversial.

    So we’re ending it. We’re rebranding it. We’re starting a new program that I’m confident governors and mayors around the country will want to work with us on to get at public safety threats.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    As you focus on something else that’s politically and legally controversial, and that’s this entire executive order?

  • JEH JOHNSON:

    Well, again, I’m convinced that we have the legal authority to do a number of things to reform the broken immigration system.

    Presidents for decades have done that with or without legislative action.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Jeh Johnson, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, thank you.

  • JEH JOHNSON:

    Thank you.

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