(President Barack Obama stands with Jeh Johnson, his choice for the next Homeland Security Secretary, in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Friday, Oct. 18, 2013. Johnson was general counsel at the Defense Department during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak))

Obama’s DHS secretary nominee a question mark on border, immigration

The man whose job included deciphering laws to decide the extent of the nation’s military powers is the president’s choice for heading the agency tasked with carrying out national immigration policies.

Little is known about where the Pentagon’s former top lawyer Jeh Johnson (whose first name is pronounced Jay) stands on issues of immigration and border security. But it not expected that he’ll stray from current administration policies.

Johnson did not mention immigration or border security when he spoke briefly at the Rose Garden Friday afternoon after President Barack Obama announced him as his choice to head the vast agency.

But the president did as he listed the qualities and background that Johnson brings to the job.

The president said the administration under former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had strengthened our borders and taken steps to make sure our immigration system better reflects our values.

Those policies include deportations of more than 300,000 people a year and daily detentions of about 30,000 people a day. But it also means overseeing, if he is approved by the Senate, an agency that may have to start the implementation of an immigration reform law should Congress approve one this year.

Johnson’s nomination comes as immigration activists are stepping up protests and other events around the country to press for immigration reform legislation and a suspension by the administration of deportations.

It also comes the day after Obama ranked immigration reform as one of the top three things Congress should get done this year. If confirmed, Johnson would take over for Janet Napolitano, who resigned in July to lead the University of California system.

“Our hope is that unlike his predecessor, he will have the standing and courage to move immigration enforcement away from its quota-driven deportation of families that would qualify for legal status under pending legislation,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group.

Sharry said while Johnson enjoys the president’s confidence and people who know him tout his intelligence and integrity, what is needed is a Homeland Security secretary who implements what Obama has repeatedly said DHS should do: focus on criminal and security threats, “not ordinary immigrants who get pulled over for being Latino and sucked into the deportation machinery for driving without a license.”

Johnson is the former general counsel for the Department of Defense who worked on repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays in the military. He also worked for the Clinton administration and is a former New York federal prosecutor.

He has been active in Democratic politics, advising Obama and John Kerry and worked to raise money for Democrats and Obama. He would be the third African American in Obama’s Cabinet.

Edward Alden, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow and immigration expert, said based on the little information reported on Johnson he’s uncertain about his fit at the agency. DHS does little counterterrorism work and instead does immigration, border control, guards the maritime coast, disaster response and emergency management.

“At the end of the day I fear that it reflects a misunderstanding of what DHS actually does,” Alden said of Johnson’s nomination.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn, whose state shares about a 1,200-mile border with Mexico, was critical of the president’s choice. Texans expected a nominee with “serious management and law enforcement experience,” Cornyn said.

“Rather than selecting someone who knows the unique dynamics of our southern border, President Obama has tapped one of his former New York fundraisers,” Cornyn said in a news release. “We need someone who knows how to secure the border, not dial for dollars.”

Texas Republican Rep. Mike McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, question in an interview with the New York Times how well Johnson could do in the job given that 40 percent of the senior leadership of the agency is missing.

Border residents and business people need a DHS leader who will see beyond the immigration issue and spend time and resources fixing the border’s infrastructure including international bridges inadequate for the legitimate commerce and travel flowing through them and the antiquated electrical grid that can’t handle mandates for high-tech document readers, said Monica Weisberg-Stewart, chair of immigration and border security committee for the Texas Border Coalition.

“The important thing is whoever is put in the position is that they get out of the bureaucratic way of doing things and be willing to listen to stakeholders and not just go along with the status quo way things have been done in the past,” Weisberg-Stewart said.

She added that Congress has to assist by recognizing that adding thousands of new Border Patrol to guard the border won’t help solve the shortage of 6,000 port inspectors or the Border Patrol’s need for support staff and passing an immigration bill.

“We’ll never be able to achieve border security without immigration reform,” she said.

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