Jeh Johnson: Americans 'Susceptible to Claims That We Have an Open, Porous Border'

Susan Jones | October 10, 2014 | 6:08am EDT
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Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. ( Starr)

( - The nation's southern border is much more secure than the American people think it is, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told a gathering in Washington on Thursday.

"Not enough has been said publicly by our government in a clear, concise way, about our border security efforts on behalf of the American people. And in the absence of facts, the American public is susceptible to claims that we have an open, porous border, through which unaccompanied minors and members of terrorist organizations such as ISIL may pass."

Johnson addressed several areas of concern, beginning with the recent flood of illegal immigrants from Central America:

"In late June and July, millions of Americans saw the images of the processing centers filled with kids. Far fewer Americans know that by early June the spike in illegal migration by unaccompanied kids had turned a corner, and now, it's, in fact, at its lowest number since January, 2013.

"In September, the public heard a claim that four individuals with suspected ties to terrorism in the Middle East had attempted to cross our southern border. Far fewer know that, in fact, these four individuals were arrested, their supposed link to terrorism was thoroughly investigated and checked, and, in the end, amounted to a claim by the individuals themselves that they were members of the Kurdish Workers Party, an organization actually fighting against ISIL and defended Kurdish territory in Iraq.

Johnson said the four people will be deported.

"The bottom line of all of this is, in recent years, the total number of those who attempt to cross our Southwest border has declined dramatically, while the percentage of those who are apprehended has gone up.

"Put simply, it's now much harder to cross our border and evade capture than it used to be, and people know that."

Summer 'setback'

Johnson conceded that the surge of Central Americans this past summer was a "setback."

"Without a doubt, we had a setback this summer with the unprecedented number of unaccompanied children and others who crossed a narrow area of our southern border in the Rio Grande Valley in search of a family member and a better life in this country.

"We responded aggressively to this spike, and in fact, now the numbers of unaccompanied children crossing into the Rio Grande Valley are at the lowest they've been in almost two years."

Johnson said in May, 10,580 unaccompanied children cross the Southwest border; 10,622 crossed in June, 5,501 in July, 3,141 in August, and 2,424 in September.

The Homeland Security Department originally projected that 60,000 unaccompanied minors would cross illegally into the U.S. in Fiscal Year 2014. "During the summer we revised that up to 90,000," Johnson said. "The fact is, the year-end number is 68,434, not far off the original projection of 60,000."

In response to the surge in illegal immigration at the Texas-Mexico border, Johnson said DHS sent the message that "our border is not open to illegal immigration."

He said the Obama administration sent additional law enforcement resources to south Texas; opened new processing centers across the Southwest; and converted existing facilities in Artesia, New Mexico and Karnes, Texas to house families.

It could happen again

If the numbers are dwindling, why is the government opening new detention facilities? a reporter asked.

"Well, as I said in my prepared remarks, a lot of migration is seasonal," Johnson said. "And so, we've got to, in my view, guard against the same thing happening again. And so, we want to build additional capability that can be converted from one type of use to another on pretty short notice.

"And so, I think there were some lessons learned from that experience. But we also don't want to just totally dismantle all the things we put in place this summer to deal with that, because it could come back again."

Johnson said he checks the numbers "several times a week" to look for upward trends. He noted that the "traditional migration pattern for adults" escalates right after the new year and peaks in early summer.

"And so we could see the same thing come back again, and I want to build against that."

Another reporter asked about mothers and children from Central America who are being held in these "jail facilities." The reporter, an immigration advocate, said "a great majority" of those in being held in detention centers would qualify for asylum and refugee status.

"Why this massive expansion of detention when we're talking about asylum seekers here, who deserve our protection?" he asked.

Johnson said, "A lot of the spike that we saw this summer were not just unaccompanied kids. Unaccompanied kids got the most attention. But a lot of it, perhaps on the same numbers, if not larger, were what we call family units -- parents with kids, which is what you're asking me about.

"We had detention space for about 34,000 individuals. Only 95 beds total for family units. Only 95 family unit capability out of 34,000.

"And so we believe it's necessary to build more of that capability in the event we have another spike, like we had last summer. 95 out of 34,000 is just not acceptable. And so, I want to build additional capability that can be converted from one use to the other."

Johnson said President Obama remains "very committed to taking executive action to fix our broken immigration system in the absence of action by Congress -- and so am I."

He described his speech, delivered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as part of an effort to be more transparent about border security.

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