On Monday night the Senate confirmed Jeh Johnson to be the next Secretary of Homeland Security. Johnson, the former General Counsel at the Department of Defense, comes to DHS at a precarious time in its history: in the midst of an immigration reform fight that, if passed, would reshape and expand the priorities of the agency away from its myopic current enforcement-only approach. Notably in this regard, the department is on track to hit 2 million total deportations under the Obama administration early next year. Johnson’s tenure at DHS provides the possibility of a new direction for the agency. But which way will he lean? Will he focus more on reform, on the one hand, or deportations, on the other? An exchange with Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), a long-time champion of using administrative action to protect groups like DREAMers from deportation, is cause for cautious optimism that Sec. Johnson will use his position to focus the agency on its stated mission. In Johnson’s words, that mission is to identify and deport “those who pose a threat to our national security, public safety and the integrity of our borders,” rather than to continue deporting upstanding fathers, mothers, or DREAMers.
In his letter to Senator Durbin, Johnson commits to focusing on “quality” in enforcement, rather than simply quantity. He rejects the idea of deportation quotas or “numeric goals” — which have been used by DHS in the past to argue that they must deport 400,000 people per year. In order to reach that arbitrary number, DHS in recent years necessarily had to adopt a broad view of its “enforcement priorities” because they could not begin to approach that goal by simply focusing on criminals. Why? Because immigrants commit crimes at a far lower rate than native born citizens.
So Sec. Johnson’s promise to “continually evaluate the prosecutorial discretion guidelines…to ensure they are consistent with the Department’s enforcement priorities” is especially important. Indeed, he must go further and ensure that the stated “priorities” themselves are not overly broad. The Obama administration’s prosecutorial discretion policy ostensibly prioritizes serious criminals rather than, for example, DREAMers or family members with strong equities in the United States. But in 2012, for example, 45% of the individuals removed had been convicted of no crime whatsoever. And even within the universe of “convicted criminal aliens,” a large percentage of the individuals removed were for minor misdemeanors and traffic offenses. A robust evaluation of the agency’s prosecutorial discretion guidelines must assess what percentage of the estimated 1,000 people who were removed every day last year really meet the president’s vision of enforcement priorities. Sen. Durbin’s letter joins a chorus of others from Congressional leaders like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) who have raised concerns about the high level of deportations, especially the removal of people that the Senate voted overwhelmingly just 6 months ago to put on a pathway to citizenship. Secretary Johnson’s letter provides an opening to begin a smarter and more strategic course for the agency. In the upcoming year and beyond, all eyes will be on the Secretary to assess if he can move from proposing change to accomplishing progress in creating a more balanced and humane agency. Marshall Fitz is Director of Immigration Policy and Angela M. Kelley is Vice President for Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress.