On Friday afternoon, President Obama named former Pentagon official Jeh Johnson as his choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security. DHS has not had a leader since Janet Napolitano stepped down in September. “If confirmed by the Senate,” Johnson said, “I promise all of my energy, focus, and ability toward the task of safeguarding our nation’s national and homeland security.”
Here’s hoping Johnson ushers in a new era at DHS.
Despite the predictable pushback against his nomination, Johnson represents a pragmatic, thoughtful choice by the president. Johnson’s policy experience, legal background, and commitment to transparency should serve him well as DHS.
Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) criticized the president’s pick, saying in a statement, “We need someone who knows how to secure the border, not dial for dollars.” But Cornyn and other conservative lawmakers would likely have opposed to any DHS candidate who was not a fellow immigration hardliner. On a practical level, Johnson’s blank slate on immigration may be one factor that allows him to be successfully confirmed. Besides, for all of Napolitano’s experience as the governor of a border state, she presided over DHS during a time of record levels of deportations. According to a recent NBC Latino article, the Obama administration is on track to surpass a deportation toll of 2 million.
It speaks to President Obama’s confidence in Johnson that he is willing to entrust him with such a huge responsibility as DHS. The Department employs over 240,000 workers across 22 agencies, from the Secret Service to FEMA to the Coast Guard. Here Johnson’s background will be invaluable, for he served as the top lawyer for the Department of Defense, working on such weighty matters as drone policy, military intervention in Libya, and repealing the ban on gays in the military. He has spoken publicly on the need for policy transparency, which is a reform he can bring to DHS. Consider that one year after the Obama administration’s unveiled its prosecutorial discretion policy in 2011, designed to focus deportation efforts on violent criminals, less than two percent of over 411,000 deportation cases had been closed. Or that Customs and Border Protection cannot say how many complaints of excessive force were lodged against the agency, although the agency has been under fire for alleged abuses and deaths along the border.
Johnson’s nomination may signal a shift in the Obama administration’s priorities. The Washington Post suggests that Johnson could usher in a period where DHS moves from emphasizing border issues to focusing more on security from terror attacks. That would be a smart move, because our country faces far greater threats from al Queda than it does from the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living among us. Johnson’s defense and legal expertise could be put to use on immigration enforcement measures; even in the absence of reform there are steps he could take to improve our immigration system.
Yes, conservatives are sounding the alarm over Johnson. “It would appear that the president plans to nominate a loyalist and fundraiser to this post. This is deeply concerning,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) told the Washington Times. Yet DHS is overdue for sound, effective leadership. Johnson deserves at least as much of a chance as Michael Chertoff, who oversaw DHS during its disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or Napolitano, who admitted last year that she did not use email “at all.” And Johnson is a better choice for DHS than New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who was widely reported to be in the running for the job. Just the prospect of Kelly’s nomination touched off a firestorm among African-Americans and Latinos opposed to his controversial policing methods.
New leadership at DHS is welcome news. It’s time for cautious optimism that Johnson can ensure our national security and implement more humane immigration policies.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.