President Obama Appoints Jeh Johnson to Head DHS

On October 18, President Obama ended months of speculation about who would succeed Janet Napolitano as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the massive federal agency charged with securing the nation’s borders, enforcing and administering U.S. immigration law, safeguarding American cyberspace, and responding to disasters natural and man-made. Speaking from the Rose Garden at the White House, President Obama introduced his nominee to head DHS: Jeh Johnson, a national security lawyer who has served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. [See Remarks by the President at Nomination of Jeh Johnson to be Secretary of Homeland Security, White House Press Office, 18.Oct.2013.]

Johnson, a consummate Washington insider, has impressive national security credentials. He served as general counsel of the Air Force during the Clinton administration, and as the top lawyer at the Pentagon during President Obama’s first term, playing a major role in shaping U.S. drone- and anti-terrorism policies, and writing an important paper outlining the legal justification for rescinding the ban on gay people serving openly in the military. Commenting on Johnson’s nomination on the PBS News Hour, Daniel Klaidman of the Daily Beast characterized him as someone who would “aggressively defend the country,” but “do it within a framework of law.” [See What Leadership Qualities Would Jeh Johnson Bring to Homeland Security? PBS News Hour, 18.Oct.2013.]

Mr. Johnson is eminently well qualified to take on the national security duties that are required of a DHS Secretary. What’s less clear is how much he knows about our immigration system, and the unique problems that attend an agency with a dual mandate: to protect the United States from dangers, foreign and domestic, but also to ensure the free and open exchange of people and goods at ports of entry all over the United States.

As the Washington Post reads the tea leaves, Mr. Johnson’s nomination marks a shift in the administration’s emphasis; whereas Janet Napolitano “made clear that her top priority was immigration reform,” Johnson “has spent most of his career dealing with national security issues as a top military lawyer.” [See Obama’s Pick of Johnson to Lead Homeland Security Suggests Priority Shift from Immigration, by Associated Press, Washington Post, 18.Oct.2013.]

Indeed, you have to read down to the twelfth paragraph of the President’s prepared remarks to find more than a passing reference to immigration reform: “We’ve got to fix our broken immigration system in a way that strengthens our borders, and modernizes legal immigration, and makes sure everybody is playing by the same rules.”

In his own brief remarks at the White House, Johnson did not mention immigration, but talked about why he has dedicated so much of his life to public service and national security issues:

“I am a New Yorker, and I was present in Manhattan on 9/11, which happens to be my birthday, when that bright and beautiful day was – a day something like this – was shattered by the largest terrorist attack on our homeland in history. I wandered the streets of New York that day and wondered and asked, what can I do? Since then, I have tried to devote myself to answering that question. I love this country. I care about the safety of our people. I believe in public service.”

During Mr. Johnson’s confirmation hearings, it will be up to the Senate to sound him out more thoroughly on his views of immigration policy, and to underscore the importance of a modern, open, and flexible immigration system – one that recognizes the extent to which our economic security and national security are inseparably intertwined.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.