Former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson: We Need to Stress That We Are Returning People as Fast as We Can

Melanie Arter | September 19, 2022 | 9:48am EDT
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Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson testifies about election security during a Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 21, 2018. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson testifies about election security during a Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 21, 2018. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

( – The Biden administration is being unfairly “perceived as lax on border enforcement” and they need to stress that they are sending migrants back as fast as they can “given the current legal construct and the resources we have,” former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

He accused the governors of Florida and Texas of treating migrants like “livestock,” adding that there’s a right and a wrong way to move migrants into the interior of the country, but it takes prior notice to non-governmental organizations (NGOs), shelters, and local government so they can devise a plan to feed, clothe, and house migrants.

JOHNSON: Illegal immigration is an information-sensitive phenomenon. It reacts sharply to information in the marketplace about perceived changes in enforcement policy on our Southern border. This administration, I believe unfairly, is perceived as lax on border enforcement. In fact, we are sending back over 100,000 people a month and have been for the last two years, over two million people.

The lesson I learned managing this issue is, you've got to repeat yourself maybe 25 times before anybody will listen to you. You have to show that we are, in fact, sending people back...

HOST MARGARET BRENNAN: Why isn't that happening?

JOHNSON: ... probably about as fast as -- well, that's a good question.

My friendly advice to the current administration, DHS and the White House is, we have to continually stress that we are, in fact, with the machinery of government, about as fast as we probably can, given the current legal construct and the resources we have, sending people back at well over 100,000, either expel expulsion or deportation.

That's a lot of people. Now, there's a larger problem here that, frankly, we did not face when I was in office. We were dealing principally with the Northern Triangle countries, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico.

This problem has become hemispheric. In addition to those countries, you now have Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela who are not cooperating with us. Their countries are literally imploding, and there is migration to the north and the south. 

Our Border Patrol capabilities, our resources are bigger than they were eight, seven years ago, when I was in office, but they do struggle to keep up with this crisis, and, from my point of view, we need to stress that we are, in fact, returning people as fast as we can.

Brennan asked what’s the difference when a governor moves migrants to other parts of the country albeit without warning and when the federal government does it.

JOHNSON: Well, there's a right way and a wrong way to do that, Margaret. The wrong way is, on 20 minutes' notice, to send people by bus or airplane to the Edgartown Airport or to Mass Ave. in front of the vice president's residence without giving local resources, NGOs, shelter's local government an opportunity to plan for how they intend to feed and clothe and house migrants.

What the governors of Florida and Texas are doing, frankly, is a political stunt and treating people like livestock. The right way to move people to the interior -- and I think it's something that we should do -- 8,000 a day into McAllen, into Henry Cuellar's district, in Laredo or El Paso, I have been saying for some time is not sustainable. 

And so we do need to move people to the interior, but through a well-coordinated effort, in coordination with NGOs, Catholic Charities, state and local government and the federal government. There is a right way to do that. It requires coordination and cooperation.

BRENNAN: Why isn't that happening, I guess, is the question we keep coming back to, and, as you're saying, it's becoming politicized. The Wall Street Journal had an op-ed saying it's hard to imagine a bigger spectacle of American political failure than the histrionics over migrants. 
They slam Republicans for staging a political stunt, but they also say Democrats are just trying to deflect away from their own border policy failures. Is that a fair assessment, in your view?

JOHNSON: Frankly, Margaret, the politics currently are such that politicians, elected officials find it more advantageous to simply scream at the other side and complain about how evil or lax the other side is.

It does take political courage to come together and put together legislation on comprehensive immigration reform. It passed the Senate in 2013. It failed in the House in 2014, but that's simply the only way we're going to deal with this problem through guest-worker programs, through stronger border security, through trying to address the problem at the source. It takes political courage, but, right now, the politics of this issue are all wrong, and I'm afraid nothing's getting done.

BRENNAN: But we have a crisis, so it requires action. Do you see a clear, coordinated planning or strategy from the White House, that controls Customs and Border Patrol and Homeland Security and the people on the front lines of this?

JOHNSON: I know DHS is working very hard. They've ramped up the resources to deal with the influx at the Southern border. It's much larger. 
The ability to move larger volumes of people is much larger than it was seven, eight years ago, but there needs to be a more comprehensive federal, state, local, executive and legislative branch effort at this, and we can do this, if we're willing to cooperate, work together, exercise some political courage, have the governor of Texas willing to work with the governors of some Northern states at moving people in a more coordinated, cooperative fashion into the interior of our country.

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