The Daily Californian sat down with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson for an impromptu interview before he spoke at a Berkeley Forum event Tuesday, which was later disrupted by immigrant rights activists. Johnson assumed office in December 2013 and has overseen a reduction in annual deportations during his tenure, which he attributes especially to increased border security. During the interview, Johnson talked immigration policy protests, the importance of learning from mistakes and support for undocumented UC Berkeley students.
Editor’s note: The following questions and answers have been edited for space and clarity.
Jeh Johnson: When I encounter protesters, which doesn’t happen that much, I try to talk to them. I’ve had Code Pink in front of my house, and I went out and spent 20 minutes talking to them. They were willing to talk to me. We had a responsible dialogue, exchange of views.
So their point is: stop deportations. In fact, in fiscal year 2012, we had over 400,000 deportations. That was the high. It’s been going down ever since. In 2013, it was 368,000, and in (fiscal year) 2014, it was 315,000. This year will be significantly less, and under our new policies, we’re focused on deporting criminals. … It’s not just rounding up the low-hanging fruit. You’ve got to spend time looking for the criminals, and so that’s what we’re endeavoring to do under the president’s new policies. So something over 100,000 people or fewer will be deported this year versus three, four years ago. It’s not responsible to just say, “I’m going to stop all deportations.” There are a lot of criminals in there — a lot of criminal street gang members, a lot of convicted felons who represent threats to public safety — and if they are undocumented, after they serve their criminal sentence, they should be deported.
The Daily Californian: And what is your response to protesters’ belief that they need to wrest power from those who are already in charge and then dominate the dialogue themselves because they aren’t in a position of power?
JJ: That’s what elections are for. … Barack Obama won twice. I am his appointed Secretary of Homeland Security, just like John Kerry is his appointed Secretary of State. That’s what elections are for. There will be another one next year.
DC: What do you think is the most controversial issue you’ve dealt with during your tenure?
JJ: Immigration, without a doubt. When you say my tenure in this job, I’ve dealt with a number of controversial issues in this administration. I was general counsel of the Department of Defense, so I dealt with drones, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” gay marriage in the military, Guantanamo Bay, WikiLeaks — so I’ve had my share of controversial issues.
DC: What would you say is your largest mistake you’ve made thus far?
JJ: My largest mistake in office?
JJ: A mistake should always be a learning experience. … This is sort of advice of life. And I guess that when I was the lawyer for the Department of Defense, I always had to be careful to stay in my lane as the legal adviser, not the policy adviser, and not get out ahead of the policymakers. So that was just as a lawyer, as the top lawyer for the Department of Defense. And that’s advice I’d give to all lawyers. … One mistake one should not make is abandoning your own good judgment. When you go on a path that is contrary to your own good judgment, if you have good judgment, it will very often become a mistake.
DC: Have you veered from your best judgment?
JJ: Every mistake is a learning experience.
DC: President Barack Obama recently announced that we will be taking in 10,000 (Syrian) refugees. What are your thoughts on that?
JJ: It’s something I think we should do. We are also providing billions in humanitarian aid to that part of the world, to the refugees, to assistance for the refugees. But it’s something we should do. We will need to carefully screen them, like we do with all refugees, and that’ll be a joint effort by the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and (Health and Human Services). And it will require pretty significant diversion of resources, but it’s something we should do.
DC: And Germany recently had to kind of curb the process of letting refugees into its country just because it was creating a lot of chaos. Are you worried about that situation happening in the United States?
JJ: This year, we’ll have something like 330,000 apprehensions on our Southern border. A lot of them are from Central America, and a lot of them will ask for asylum, and the rate at which people are able to state a claim of credible fear, which is the initial stage of the process, is pretty high — it’s well over 50 percent. So we have that process in place.
There are a lot of people who believe we should not admit all those people, but a lot of them expect to be apprehended. They don’t evade capture, necessarily, and the law says that if somebody states a claim of credible fear, we have to honor that, and they’re entitled to make their asylum claim, and a lot of them do. That’s how the law works. There are a lot of people in this country who are not receptive to immigrants, and then there are a lot who are very embracing.
DC: How would you respond to UC Berkeley’s undocumented students who are disadvantaged in their situation coming here, as in dealing with a lot of issues at home with their family members being deported? How would you want to support undocumented students at UC Berkeley?
JJ: Whatever the school and state policy is. We would like to give those who are here undocumented, who’ve been here a certain period of time, who have children who are citizens or lawful permanent residents deferred action, like we did in the (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program three years ago. Unfortunately, that’s in litigation, and there’s an injunction in the district court which is on appeal right now. So we think that for those people who were here undocumented, who have been here a period of years, who have roots here, who’ve committed no serious crimes — we ought to give them an opportunity to come forward, be accountable and get on the books.