WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said he will return to southern Arizona early next year to meet with residents and talk about steps his agency is taking to secure the border and further reduce illegal immigration.
“I plan to – if you’ll have me – come early next year to Arizona,” Johnson said Tuesday in response to a question from Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson. “I owe the ranchers another visit.”
It was an agreeable moment in an occasionally contentious hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee, where Johnson was called on to defend President Barack Obama’s recent executive action on immigration.
Committee Republicans peppered Johnson with questions about the legality of Obama’s Nov. 20 actions, which Texas Rep. Mike McCaul, the committee chairman, described as “unilateral actions to bypass Congress, undermine the Constitution and threaten our democracy.”
Johnson agreed with lawmakers that executive action is “no substitute” for comprehensive immigration reform legislation that he hopes Congress will pass. But he said the president acted “within his legal authority” with his actions – many of which came from Johnson.
“I recommended to the president each of the Homeland Security reforms to the immigration system that he has decided to pursue,” Johnson told the committee.
Obama said last month that since Congress had not passed comprehensive immigration reform legislation, he was taking executive action to “fix the broken immigration system.”
Actions outlined by Obama would expand the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which delays deportation for some illegal immigrants; shift the focus of deportations from “families” to “felons”; streamline the visa process; and take steps to further tighten the border.
That approach has infuriated congressional Republicans, who are threatening lawsuits and budget cuts to stop the actions that they claim exceed the president’s constitutional powers.
McCaul predicted that the plan would lead to more illegal immigration, pointing to similar actions by Obama’s predecessors, including President Ronald Reagan.
“I just look at history,” he said. “In 1986, amnesty. It led to a wave of illegal immigration. I look at DACA and I look at 60,000 children. I’m telling you it’s going to happen … and your department is not prepared for it.”
The “60,000 children” was a reference to the flood of illegal immigrants from Central America, many of them unaccompanied minors, at the Texas border earlier this year. Johnson acknowledged a “setback this summer,” but said the border is more secure than ever.
He said the president’s actions will “enhance border security” by prioritizing “removal of those apprehended at the border and those who came here illegally after Jan. 1, 2014, regardless of where they are apprehended.”
Barber, whose district includes the border, recalled Johnson’s visit to southern Arizona earlier this year, when he had heard firsthand the concerns of ranchers and other residents about drug smugglers and “the violence that comes with them.”
Barber said current security measures should be beefed up and moved closer to the border.
“I think the answer … is pretty straightforward,” said Barber, who sits on the committee. “Border Patrol agents at the border, not 10, 15, 20 miles back … more horse patrols in the rugged territory and aerostats (tethered blimps) that will allow us to have radar looking down to see where the smugglers are coming from.”
Johnson said he needs additional funds to strengthen security under the Southern Border and Approaches Campaign that he announced earlier this year and which was advanced by the president’s plan.
“I need help with resources,” Johnson said. “I need help on the southern border in Arizona, in Texas and New Mexico for added detention capability, added surveillance capability … and I’m hoping Congress will support me on that.”
Barber and others called on Congress to pass immigration reform legislation, including a Senate-passed bipartisan bill whose co-sponsors included Arizona GOP Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain.
“I’ve said from Day One that Congress needs to act and we have failed in our responsibility to act to secure the border,” Barber said. “I fully support the McCain-Flake bill that is sitting here ready for us to take up.”
Johnson agreed that legislative reform is preferable to executive action, but that politics have stood in the way.
“If we could just strip away the politics and the emotion from this issue, I believe I could negotiate a bill,” he said. “I’m issuing that invitation again. I believe we can do it.”F