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DHS chief: Congress must increase border-security funding

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DHS chief: Congress must increase border-security funding

Johnson: Licenses for deferred-action participants good for Arizona

  • Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson speaks about the agency's needs and expansion during a public lecture at Arizona State University in Phoenix.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comHomeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson speaks about the agency's needs and expansion during a public lecture at Arizona State University in Phoenix.

Following a review of Super Bowl security preparations, Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson spoke in Phoenix on Wednesday, pushing against a perception that DHS has done little to combat border crossings as he urged Congress to increase funding for his agency.

Johnson also said he approves of a recent appeals court ruling requiring Arizona to provide driver's licenses to participants in the federal deferred action program — the so-called Dreamers.

Johnson, speaking at Arizona State University's downtown Phoenix campus, called on Congress should pass a funding bill for his agency, which currently operates on a continuing resolution set to expire Feb. 27.

Without a funding bill, Johnson said that he "cannot do the things that Congress wants me to do," which includes not only border security, but also government grants that fund security efforts by state and local law enforcement such as those used to provide security at Sunday’s SuperBowl.

"Everybody in Congress is telling me we got to do something," Johnson said. "I cannot print money and I cannot appropriate money. I need a partner in Congress." 

Last year, Johnson and the White House asked for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to pay for the surge of unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley, but Congress rebuffed his request.

Johnson responded by shifting more than $405 million from the disaster relief fund and the Transportation Security Agency. 

"Fortunately we had a good weather year last year, but I do not assume that we’re going to be that lucky this year," Johnson said.

Johnson's speech, entitled "Border Security in the 21st Century," included a push against the public perception that immigration continues to grow in the United States. 

Showing a chart of apprehensions from 2000 to 2014, Johnson noted the overall decline from more than 1.6 million in 2000 to around 479,000 in 2014. 

"The economy clearly also has a lot to do with it, but this also reflects the huge investment we’ve made in border security," said Johnson, speaking at ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Johnson noted the overall growth of the agency from 2000. In 2000, there were around 9,000 agents working for the Border Patrol, but the ranks have expanded to a peak of 21,444 agents in 2012, according to agency figures.

Last year, the agency reported there were 20,863 agents. 

Johnson also noted new construction of fencing along the border, the acquisition of new aircraft and boats, as well as the deployment of several different surveillance systems, including eight Predator drones. 

Last week, the House of Representatives considered a bill that would require the agency to take "operational control" of the border, building more walls and deploying more sensors, and including punishment for DHS leaders should even one person slip through the agency's bulwarks. 

Johnson criticized the bill’s approach last Thursday, calling it "extreme to the point of being unworkable." 

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, who sponsored the "Secure Our Borders Act of 2015" along with Arizona's freshman Rep. Martha McSally, shot back during a press conference Saturday on a ranch near the border south of Sierra Vista.

"We gave the department time to get this done; they have not gotten the job done," McCaul said.

Currently, agents may operate almost 90 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, but McSally added additional language requiring the Border Patrol to send agents to the fence line and to patrol the border from forward operating bases.

McSally said the shift is necessary so that criminal activity can be detected in Mexico and either intercepted or deterred by Border Patrol agents on the border. 

"While the levels have gone down, the level of danger has increased," said McSally. "The people who are coming through, the types of people, transnational criminal organizations are coming through with drugs, while weapons and cash are going south." 

Numbers from the agency bear part of this story out.

While the number of apprehensions in the Tucson Sector is a third of the apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley, Southern Arizona continues to be the main avenue for marijuana. However, the Rio Grande Valley is rapidly catching up and Border Patrol agents in the sector have seized 40 times as much cocaine.

While the numbers for the first few months of 2015 show a 12 percent drop in the number of unaccompanied minors coming into the United States, Johnson said that the issue remains important. 

"Central America is the challenge, because there are push factors and pull factors that still exist,” Johnson said.

Johnson also noted that he received "good advice from the Conference of Catholic Bishops who said, 'You cannot simply padlock the door.'"

Johnson also said that the agency is working to process children in their home country. They will be interviewed and processed, creating what he called a "lawful safe path" to the United States.

Licenses for Dreamers

Johnson said it’s important for immigrants to follow through, now that some young undocumented residents are able to get driver’s licenses in Arizona.

“A program that encourages them to come forward and be accountable is good for the economy because it gets people on the books,” Johnson said after giving a presentation on border security.

“They’re paying taxes. And legitimate employment.”

Gov. Jan Brewer decided against allowing driver’s licenses for those who qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which lets qualified immigrants who were born after June 15, 1981, remain and work in the United States. But a federal judge overturned that ban in December.

Johnson said there are approximately 11.3 million people living in the United States illegally, but he said the so-called Dreamers are “low-priority” for deportation.

“The reality is no administration, Republican or Democrat, is going to deport 11 million people,” Johnson said during an interview. “They’re there and they’re not going away. So from my perspective, better to encourage them to come forward, submit to background checks, start paying taxes.”

Johnson said having those immigrants on the books through driver’s licenses is also good from a policing and homeland security point of view because it encourages people to participate in law enforcement.

“We want people to report crime,” he said. “If somebody’s been the victim of crime, I want that person to report it to law enforcement. Or from the Homeland Security law enforcement perspective, I want to know who people are in this country.”

Cronkite News reporter Sophia Kunthara contributed to the driver’s license portion of this story.

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