Zero Tolerance: Jeh Johnson Interview | FRONTLINE

>>Let’s start with the 2013-2014 bill. So Congress attempts to finally deal with an issue that has been a big problem for a long time. It seems like they’re very close. There is a bipartisan attitude towards it. There is even Fox News is supportive of the idea that it is time for reform. The “autopsy” has happened within the Republican Party where they’re realizing that perhaps they should embrace the Hispanic community slightly more and change the way the Republican Party is seen. All that said, it doesn’t go anywhere. But before we say that, can you help us understand, how did the Obama administration view the possibility, the potential for this bill going forward? Optimistic? What was the view, do you believe, of the Obama administration?>>In the period 2013-2014, there was enormous hope and optimism in the Obama administration that we would finally have comprehensive immigration reform and we’d have it on our watch. S. 744, the Senate bill that passed in 2013—with 68 votes, by the way, a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate— basically achieved the two principal objectives that people on the left and people on the right wanted, and a lot of stuff in between. So on the left, what that bill did was path to citizenship: give people who have been in this country a number of years the opportunity to submit to a background check and get on a path to citizenship and be accountable. On the other end of the spectrum was more border security, which people on the right want to see: more border patrol agents, more technology, a more secure border. And so those were the two pinnacles of comprehensive immigration reform back then, and there was a lot of in between. And there was a bipartisan consensus that to have one, you had to have the other in order for it to get through the Congress. So when I stepped into the job of secretary of Homeland Security in December 2013, there was still hope that the bill would get through the House of Representatives. And much of our thinking and our discussions and our debate within the administration was around preserving that legislation and getting it through the House.>>Why did it fail, and what was the attitude within the White House upon the failure?>>Well, there was a lot of hope in 2014 that it would eventually pass. And I say—I believe that the Senate bill failed in the House for essentially two reasons in 2014: a, because we had the uptick in illegal migration on our southern border in early summer/spring 2014, which, by the way, by late summer was over; and [House Majority Leader] Eric Cantor’s defeat in the primary. I think at that moment, a lot of Republican politicians realized the volatility of the issue and frankly were frightened off by any bipartisan solution to comprehensive immigration reform. You know, I remember in sort of a postmortem discussion I had with the speaker of the House, John Boehner. He summoned me up to Capitol Hill. I had never met him before. And this was after the bill was pretty much dead. And I walked into his outer office, and he stepped out— you know, he’s got the cigarette in his hand: “Hey, Johnson, come on in here. I don’t normally meet with Cabinet guys one-on-one, but [Sen.] Richard Burr says you’re a good guy.” And we sat down, and we talked. And it was clear to me that Speaker Boehner really wanted comprehensive immigration reform on his watch. And he said, “I just can’t get anybody in my caucus to lead on this issue anymore.”>>… Let’s talk about policy. When you get to DHS, and you’ve written that illegal immigration became the bane of your existence—>>Yes. Illegal immigration became the bane of my existence.>>—explain what that means.>>In public life, I have dealt with a lot of really different issues. Before I was secretary of Homeland Security, I was general counsel of the Department of Defense, counterterrorism, targeted lethal force, drone strikes, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” such that gay service members could now serve openly in our military. At DHS, I had to deal with cyberattacks, the Secret Service, natural disasters, hurricanes, mudslides. Immigration was, by far, the most difficult issue I ever had to deal with in public life. It’s not that there are no good answers. Very often in national security, when you look at the options you have, there are no good answers. There are answers to our broken immigration system, but the issue has become so politicized, and it is wrapped in so much emotion, that politically it’s just extraordinarily difficult to get to those answers.>>Why? Why has that happened?>>Because, frankly, both sides on the political spectrum recognize that it is more comfortable to reside in their safe space, on their extreme corners, and talk only to their respective bases, rather than exercise some political courage and embrace things that may be less than popular with their base in order to achieve the things that their base wants. The nature of governing is politics. The nature of politics is compromise. If you want to govern, you have to utilize politics, and if you want to utilize politics, you have to be prepared to embrace compromise. And that is especially true on the issue of immigration.>>So what did you learn? I know there was an uptick in illegal immigrants coming across the border when you were there.>>Yes.>>What did you learn specifically, for instance, first off, about the issue of or the tactic of deterrence?>>Here’s what I learned: When I was in office in early 2014, and we saw this spike in the numbers on the southern border, I called in my Republican predecessor, Mike Chertoff, and his team for any lessons they may have learned when they saw upticks in illegal migration. And I’ll never forget something Mike Chertoff told me, which is that illegal immigration is a very market-sensitive phenomenon. It reacts sharply to information in the marketplace about real or perceived changes in enforcement policy. And so in the early summer 2014, when we saw these numbers, we put out our messaging. We amplified our messaging about the dangers of the journey through Mexico. I personally went to Central America, to Guatemala, and held press conferences encouraging families, the population, “Listen, don’t come to the United States,” which is a little awkward when you’re standing right next to the president of the country. We got the Mexican government to help us on their southern border through a constructive engagement with my counterpart, Miguel Osorio Chong, and a president-to-president engagement. And we expanded our detention capability. And so the combination of those three things I think resulted in a pretty sharp downturn in the numbers, such that by July-August 2014, the numbers were lower than we had seen in a very long time. And they stayed low. Now, the corollary to that lesson learned is, so long as the underlying push factors exist, so long as the underlying conditions of poverty and violence in Central America persist, the numbers are always going to revert back to their longer-term trend lines. And so 2016, the numbers started to creep up again. And then when President Trump took office in 2017, the numbers dropped off really sharply, owing simply to his rhetoric, his campaign rhetoric, and then his rhetoric once he took office, the revocation of some of the policies that President Obama and I enacted. In 2017, he had not hired a single additional Border Patrol agent or built a single additional mile of wall, but it was his rhetoric that led to the sharp downturn. But then what happened? The numbers started to creep back up again, such that by 2019, they were far higher than anything we saw on my watch and far higher than anything we’ve seen in years because of the underlying conditions in Central America that persist.>>So flamboyant rhetoric in itself will not solve the problem.>>In the short term, maybe, but not in the long term, which is why—and this administration has still not learned this lesson yet—which is why, if you want to address illegal migration, you have to make a long-term investment in eradicating the poverty and violence in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. And that requires a multiyear, sustained political commitment. It can be done, like a Plan Colombia, and I’m told by people in DHS today that the modest amounts that we began investing in 2016 had already been showing signs of improving the situation there, so cutting off that aid is the exact wrong thing to do.>>Which is what the president wanted to do.>>Well, cutting off that aid is the exact wrong thing to do for two reasons. One, that’s contrary to the direction we need to go. Two, when you announce you’re cutting off that aid, you’re basically sending the message to everybody in Central America, “You have no hope.” It perpetuates a feeling of hopelessness that the coyotes stoke, by the way, and just adds fuel to that fire.>>… What do you think of that attitude that seems to be very prevalent, that deterrence, the need for consequences, is essential to solving the problem?>>Well, the Border Patrol refers to “consequence delivery.” I always thought that was a rather harsh, cold term. I’m not sure I embraced it myself. It is true that migrants and the smugglers pay close attention to changes in our enforcement policy. And so, when you do change enforcement policy, it will have an effect. But that effect is only short term when the underlying conditions exist. And what I used to say to people on my watch, my leadership team in the immigration components: “Bring me all available options. I want to know what you think. I want to know what you think might help address this problem. If it’s lawful, I want to hear about it. If it’s stupid, I’ll reject it, but I want to hear all available options. If it’s heartless, if it’s something I don’t think we should do— but I do want to hear from you.” And I wanted to encourage them to bring forth all legally available ideas.>>This is a big question; then we’ll move off to specifics. But explain to us sort of as simple as you can, in your overview, how Trump’s strategies that he has been proposing, has been working towards, differ from Obama’s strategies. Just lay out the overall view from your perspective of how they differ and why. What are the differences? What’s the same?>>Well, I feel as though—I watch this movie, and I feel as though this administration is not learning the lessons of recent history. This administration has clearly embraced the idea of consequence delivery, of doing things and saying things for the purposes of deterrence. There was the “zero tolerance” policy, which was bound never to work, first of all because you cannot prosecute everyone who crosses the southern border—we don’t have the resources to do that—and then, the consequential separation of families, something we could not do in the prior administration. And so this administration seems to— they look at the problem. The president is clearly frustrated by it. He’s frustrated because you can tell that he sees the caravans, the migrants heading for the southern border as a direct challenge to him and his authority as president. And he screams and wants something done about it. He screams at his people, and he wants them to take action. And so they’ve tried all these different deterrent methods, which in the end fail because they don’t have any long-term impact. If you look at the zero tolerance policy, which was in place for, you know, part of the summer of 2018, and you look at the numbers, it had almost zero deterrent effect. So I feel like, as I watch this whole thing unfold, this administration is trying all these different things for purposes of deterrence, many of which are either bound to fail because you cannot achieve it, or just heartless and lack public support, such that not only have their actions failed to deliver on what they hope, but the problem now is worse than it’s ever been.>>What are the similarities between some of what— I mean, you guys were not pushovers. There were decisions made that were very serious decisions to attempt to get—to grab hold of the problem of increasing illegal immigration. What are the similarities?>>I was in Laredo, Texas, one day, and Laredo, Texas, is right on the border. It’s about 85% Hispanic. And the local congressman there summed it up in one sentence about what Americans want in terms of immigration. Americans want—and this is a community that’s overwhelmingly Hispanic and Democratic— Americans want to treat people who are here fairly, give people the opportunity for a path to citizenship, but they also want secure borders. And I believe that within the extremes of the debate, most Americans reside with those two essential views. And so, in the prior administration, we wanted to prioritize our enforcement actions against criminals, the people who are truly dangerous. We wanted to give people a path to citizenship. We wanted to build on and expand DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals]. But we also recognized the need for secure borders. You cannot have open borders in a sovereign country with border security and immigration enforcements laws. But also, as a political matter, it is difficult to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. It is difficult to obtain what people want in terms of path to citizenship, DACA and everything if our border’s out of control, if we’re seeing a surge on our southern border, because the conservatives say, well, if we’re going to give people a path to citizenship, are we going to be doing this again in five, 10 years, after the recent surge applies, after they’ve been here for a few years? So comprehensive immigration reform simply has to encompass both taking care of the people who have been here for years, but also securing our border. That’s the only way you’re going to get large public support around the whole package.>>So that sounds very similar to—>>That was basically the philosophy and the approach that we embraced in the Obama administration. In the Trump administration, it’s all one thing. It’s all “Shut the border, shut the border, stop illegal immigration.” There’s only one— it’s unidimensional in the Trump administration. And what I find so ironic is—and I think I may have even said this to President-elect Trump during the transition— on immigration, because of the way he campaigned, because of his hard-line stance on immigration, he really was, at least in the first year or so of his administration, in a position to have a “Nixon goes to China” moment, where he could achieve something that we in the prior administration could not. And he even said this at one point in a meeting with congressional leaders. I remember; it was on camera: “I’ll be your top cover. You guys go out and embrace comprehensive immigration reform, you legislate DACA, and I’ll be your top cover.” But for whatever reason, he’s never been able to go beyond simply that unidimensional approach to border security. And I suspect that there’s a part of him that would like to, but Stephen Miller always pulls him back. >>Why do you say that?>>Intuition. >>Who is Stephen Miller, and what do we know—>>Stephen Miller is the number one policy person— I’ve never met Stephen Miller, but he’s the number one policy person in the White House. He occupies, I know, a corner office on the second floor of the West Wing and looms large, I’m quite sure, in Donald Trump’s brain when it comes particularly to immigration. And without a doubt, Stephen Miller is a hard-liner, much like his patron, Jeff Sessions. …>>Another thing that the White House continually says is when the family separation after zero tolerance came up, their claim was: “We didn’t start family separations. The Obama administration did the same thing. Look at the pictures of the cages.” What’s your response to that allegation that they make over and over and over again?>>OK, so this suggestion that family separation didn’t begin with President Trump, OK. How many millions of times have the fact checkers debunked that? We did not have—let me be perfectly clear about this— we did not have a policy or a practice to separate families. I still have mental images of mothers clinging to their babies on the border, and I was not going to pull a baby away from its mother, and I was not going to ask a Border Patrol agent or an ICE officer to do that either. Were there one-off instances where there might have been some doubt about who the parent was, or for reasons of health or safety a child was separated from an adult? Quite probably. But there was no policy or practice to separate families. That was not something that I was prepared to do; it was not something President Obama was going to do. And the surest sign that there was no such policy or practice, the surest sign that there was no such policy or practice is, if there were, you would have heard about it, because there would have been a huge cry, just like there was in 2018, had we gone that route.>>So why the claims by Miller, the claims by the White House, the claims by others within the Trump circle?>>You’d have to ask them. Somebody is putting that in his ear, and it is absolutely false.>>President Obama’s decision to— the DACA executive order, why was it that that avenue was eventually taken? Why was it necessary?>>The DREAM [Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors] Act failed to pass Congress in 2011 during the lame-duck session in December 2011. I happen to remember the DREAM Act because it was moving along with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which is something I personally worked on when I was at the Department of Defense. [DADT] passed; the DREAM Act did not. And so President Obama, I know, was anxious to do something for the people who had come here as kids, and the lawyers in the executive branch concluded that he had and that the secretary of Homeland Security then had the authority without legislation to grant on a case-by-case basis deferred action to a class of people who come forward and apply. Now, let me just not directly answer your question, but give you an interesting anecdote on this. I have seen the impact on real people of the lack of a DACA, the lack of a policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. In 2016, I went down to Honduras. It was one of my visits to Central America. And the ambassador to Honduras for some reason wanted me to meet people we had deported back to Honduras. And I’ll never forget. I met in the ambassador’s residence among this group a young man who had come to the United States with his brother and his mother when he was about 2 or 3 years old, way before there was a DACA. And one day, way before there was a DACA, as a teenager, ICE one day scooped him up and sent him back to Honduras and essentially evicted him from the only country he knew, and tore him away from his mother and his brother. And as I spoke to this young man in Honduras, he was essentially an American. He was de facto American. He was from New Jersey, just like I was. He was a New York Giants fan. I’m not a Giants fan, but he was a New York Giants fan. He had the accent and the affect of somebody who grew up in the tri-state area in New Jersey. And he was pulled away from the only life he knew and had to rebuild a new life in a strange land. And so DACA is a recognition and a realization that when somebody comes here as a child, they have no recollection of the place where they were born. They grow up here, and this is the only country they know. They’re brought here not of their own choice, and we should recognize and acknowledge that and be compassionate toward those people.>>Now, of course, the Republicans claimed executive overreach. Executive overreach. What do you—how do you view that claim at this point?>>Well, our executive actions, including DAPA [Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents], that I rolled out with President Obama in November 2014, were only after we delayed and delayed and delayed because we wanted to give Congress a chance to take action. And they didn’t, because no one on the Republican side was willing to step forward and lead on this. And so we finally, because the lawyers told us, took action within our existing authority. It immediately went to the courts. …. DAPA lost by just a narrow margin. The district judge enjoined us. Then it went to the 11th Circuit. Then it went to the Supreme Court. In the 11th Circuit and the Supreme Court, there were a total of 12 judges who heard the case. Six went one way; six went the other. So essentially, the tie went to the runner. The injunction that the district judge entered stood. So DAPA barely lost in the courts. And DAPA was an expansion of DACA because we were going to provide deferred action to parents of people who were U.S. citizens, who were born in this country, and the parents of lawful permanent residents. And there was an estimated class of about 3.6 million people. We were told by the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel that we had the authority to do this. But this was only after giving Congress numerous opportunities in 2014 to do this themselves.>>I’m going to ask one question about the Trump campaign, and then we’re going to go through some of the elements of the program that Trump has put through, or has attempted to. You’re watching the campaign, and you’re seeing candidate Trump come down the gold escalator and start talking about the rapists coming across the border and how immigration is such an essential element. …>>All throughout 2015, I pretty much took a hands-off approach to the stances that candidate Trump was taking because people in national security, people in homeland security, should not be injecting themselves into political campaigns, into the political dialogue back-and-forth. Frankly, that changed in December 2015. It was right after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. And I realized then— and San Bernardino was on the heels of Paris. And I realized then that I needed to make a statement. I was inspired by the statement that President George W. Bush made shortly after 9/11 when he went to a Muslim center in Washington, D.C., and talked about how Islam is about peace. And I was inspired by that example, and I, right after San Bernardino, told my people, I want to go back to a particular mosque in Northern Virginia called the ADAMS [All Dulles Area Muslim Society] Center. It’s probably one of the largest mosques in the whole United States. I had gone there once before, and it was a really great experience. There was a Boy Scout troop; there was Girl Scout troop. We said the Pledge of Allegiance. And I told my people, I want to go back to the ADAMS Center, right after San Bernardino, to stand with American Muslims and exhibit and express solidarity. Let’s not ostracize and isolate this group of Americans. And I went to the ADAMS Center, and we did a press event. And I was giving my remarks about standing with these patriotic Americans, and people in the press started to ask me, “What about the comment that Mr. Trump said about banning Muslims from this country?” And it turns out he made that announcement at the exact time I was at the ADAMS Center, so I didn’t know what the press were talking about, and I couldn’t believe that any candidate for president would propose barring people from this country based on their religion. And so I kind of reverted to my standard talking points about solidarity and coming together in a time of high stress. And I’ll never forget, on the way out, I think it was a little boy said to me, right in my ear, “Sir, aren’t you going to denounce what Mr. Trump said about us?” And I got the full download on what he said. I couldn’t believe it. And I was scheduled to be on TV the next day for an interview. And I called the journalist, and I said, “I want you to ask me about what Mr. Trump said today.” I knew I was stepping into the political fray by doing so, but I felt like I had to. And I said that day, when a candidate for president proposes that we bar people from this country based on their faith, based on their religion, those of us in public office, those of us in national security have a duty to speak out and— and object to that suggestion and stand with the Muslim community, because I saw his very proposal as a setback to all of our efforts to build bridges to this community at a time when many people in this country wanted to vilify this community. So I felt like I had to speak out. That’s literally how it happened. I didn’t mention it, but it was Andrea Mitchell. I said, “Andrea, you’ve got to ask me about this.” And you could see the interview; it’s still there.>>Gen. [John] Kelly was the one who would replace you.>>Yes.>>Did you have conversations with him in advance And what was your view of how you thought he would— where he would take the job?>>I knew John Kelly well. He was the military aide to the secretary of Defense while I was the general counsel of the Department of Defense. We bonded almost immediately. When I was secretary of Homeland Security, he was commander of U.S. Southern Command. When I went down to Guatemala the first time, he went with me. And so we had a bond. … When it was first floated that he might be secretary of Homeland Security, I had a conversation with him, and I said, “John, before you seriously consider accepting this, you should come back and talk to me.” But part of me knew that he was not going to do that. If he was asked by the incoming commander in chief to accept a difficult assignment, he was not going to say no. And he didn’t say no. During the transition, I wanted to give him the full download on everything that I knew about the job that I thought he should know about the job in a one-on-one session, just the two of us. We had the hardest time with the transition team just negotiating that one-on-one meeting with my friend. The incoming team insisted that it had to be at a neutral place, that others had to be present, as if I was going to pollute his mind with all of these impure Border Security thoughts. I said: “Look, that’s ridiculous. We’re going to have a one-on-one meeting, and he’s going to come to my office, and I’m going to talk to my friend about all the things I think he needs to know about the job.” And it eventually happened.>>And your expectations for how he would deal with the immigration issue was?>>You know, that’s a good question. When John Kelly was announced as my successor, I greeted that as good news. I said publicly to my own workforce, “You will greet him and recognize he is a man of character and integrity.” And I was encouraged by his selection, so much so that on the day he was announced, I picked up the phone. I had a phone number for Trump Tower. I called the number, and I left a message with the assistant to say, “Please congratulate the president-elect on what I believe to be a fine choice to be my successor.” And she said, “Well, let me see if he’s in his office,” and put me right through to him. And I congratulated him. He appreciated the call. I had high hopes for John Kelly, and I believed then he could have been secretary of Homeland Security under a Democratic or Republican administration, because at the time, he had no real, defined political views as a career military officer. Sure, he’s a rough-and-tumble Marine; he says what he thinks. He understands illegal migration from Central America because it was part of his AOR [area of responsibility]. But at the time, I believed he could have been just as easily Hillary Clinton’s secretary of Homeland Security. >>And your overview of the job he did?>>I think that– I actually believe— and this is my speculation— if John had to do it all over again, he would have turned down the job of chief of staff, because he really did like and enjoy being the Homeland Security person. I think he enjoyed the workforce. He respected the workforce; he respected the missions. And it’s way more than immigration. It’s aviation security; it’s cybersecurity; it’s maritime security, the Coast Guard; it’s natural disasters. I know John regarded that as the opportunity of a lifetime. And he enjoyed the job, but I am sure he felt an obligation to his commander in chief to accept the chief of staff position because he had asked him to take it.>>We’ll talk a little bit more about it later on, but the travel ban, the executive orders that start coming out soon after the president is inaugurated, what was your overview, especially of the travel ban? Was it surprising the way it was brought out? What did you judge of this group in the administration at that point?>>It was clear to me, from the moment it was announced this was going to be a 100-car train wreck, because you could just tell, given the speed with which it was announced, that there had been no period of planning, talking about the implementation of it. I know from personal experience, before we announced, for example, our executive actions in November 2014, I had countless meetings with my immigration component leaders—Tom Holman, Kevin McAleenan and Gil Kerlikowske—to talk through multiple drafts, to understand the implications for enforcement policies, what it was going to do to the workforce. Did we have the resources to do this? What are the unanticipated consequences of going a certain route? I had countless meetings over weeks before we announced what we did. And the travel ban was a dramatic step. It was a big, huge step announced and authorized literally overnight. And it’s clear that the new administration did not think through, for example, what do we do about people at the airports overseas? What do we do about people sitting at JFK? Various issues of interpretation. It was so clear. They try now to say, “Well, we intended it to be a mess.” That’s not how you make government policy or implement government policy.>>… Did it define anything else about what would happen with immigration as far as you were concerned after those executive orders came out?>>The travel ban defined, I think, and set the tone for all that came after. The travel ban went through various iterations where they dialed back version one several times. But it really did set the stage for many people assuming the worst, in terms of the motives, of this administration. Never in my lifetime would I think that there would be a finding by a federal district court that our president harbors a religious animus that he attempted to translate into official government policy. But that was the prism in which the travel ban and its various iterations were viewed, and viewed that way by several dissenting justices in the Supreme Court. And that’s been the prism through which people have viewed all the different things that he’s tried to do in immigration.>>… DACA was the other one that they were going to do immediately. They were going to kill DACA. There were seven executive orders written. Six were released. The seventh was DACA. It didn’t get released. Do you have any insight on why this president would not release it?>>No. But—but I—well, two things. One, I remember in summer of 2017, the president was considering what to do about DACA, and he had made various statements along the way expressing sympathy for this class of people, and even at one point had met with them to say, “You’re right, and I’m going to take care of you.” And as the administration approached the deadline in court for what they were going to do, I wrote an op-ed in which I tried to appeal to that side of him: Mr. President, here’s a chance for you to do something and tell your attorney general what to do, which is to defend DACA in the courts consistent with what you said before. And I suspect, again, that what happened was that the hard-liners around him pulled him back from taking bold action in this area. And they went about it all the wrong way in that DACA was a policy. It was executive action. By definition, executive action can be undone by the executive. But Jeff Sessions announced that DACA’s not legal. They didn’t withdraw it as a policy matter; they staked out the claim that it was not legal, entitling the courts to second-guess that legal judgment, which is exactly what happened. >>Let’s back up, and then we’ll go back there. You also had a conversation with Gen. Kelly where you asked him to protect “Dreamers,” that you had a conversation about this. … What did you perceive from that conversation about his attitude about DACA? And does that give us some insight about— there was a divide within the White House, we realize. Did that give us some insight about this divide?>>I think that John, from everything I know about him, is, first of all— first and foremost, John is a Marine. Marines tend to see things in clear and emphatic terms, which is why in speeches he would say things like, “If you don’t like the way we’re enforcing the law, change the law.” That’s a Marine speaking. But I also believed that there was a compassionate side to him. And I think John recognized that we should take care of the Dreamers. And if it were up to him, I believe he would have done so.>>Did you have any conversations? Because Gen. Kelly’s sort of involvement in these issues is very difficult to ascertain, because both sides— there’s two different stories that keep being told about it. From your conversations with him, could you ascertain whether he did believe in a delay? Or what was his–>>I actually never spoke to John while he was secretary of DHS. He did not call me for my advice. And part of that, I know—and he said as much publicly— there were plenty of people around who were career people who could always explain why I did what I did in the prior administration because they were there, like Kevin McAleenan or Tom Holman. You know, it’s difficult to know within the internal deliberations in the Trump administration who’s arguing what, except through the leaks. And my sense is that John was not among the hard-liners and had probably a more practical approach, and, in places, a more compassionate approach to immigration. But again, I suspect Stephen Miller was always pulling President Trump back from doing anything that might alienate the base. This president reacts when one of the commentators on the far right speaks ill of him because of a perceived softness on immigration: Oh, it’s all over now. It’s amnesty. It’s not what he campaigned on. This president just cannot seem to be able to tolerate that. …>>So Sessions on Sept. 5 comes out and makes the announcement that he cannot defend— that DOJ cannot defend the DACA because of the deadlines given in the 10 suits.>>The states, right. The states said, tell us what you’re going to do, or we’re going to sue by X date.>>What’s your overview, number one, that Sessions is the one making this statement instead of the president?>>They could have done this so differently. The president himself or the secretary of Homeland Security could have, if they wanted to go this direction, simply announced, “We’re ending the policy,” because it’s a policy. It’s not a law; it’s a policy. By definition, executive action can be undone by the executive. But for whatever reason, the president decided not to stake out a position on the policy, but leave it to the attorney general to declare that it was not legal, which then entitles the courts to second-guess that judgment.>>… So Dreamers become basically a political bargaining chip, period. The view of the president and his people around him, how [do] they view Dreamers and DACA at that point?>>The Dreamers have been a political bargaining chip, and they exist in limbo right now. I had a member of the Dreamer class who is at an Ivy League institution ask me, “Mr. Secretary, what’s my future in this country?” This is while Trump is president. “What’s my future?” And I’m not able to tell him. I don’t know what to tell him. I’ve said: “Young man, I’m afraid your fate is in the hands of the courts, because I don’t know what the policy of this president is. I don’t know what the future of the policy is. I don’t know what the future of any legislation is.” And I said, “I’m afraid your fate is in the hands of the courts.” And this is someone who himself is trying to become a lawyer. …>>Another big issue we’re dealing with, and I’d like to get your view on a couple of things that happened, on April 6, 2018, Attorney General Sessions comes out with the policy of “zero tolerance.” It leads to family separation.>>Yes. And that’s the correct way to characterize it, too, which is why for a while, you’d hear the administration playing these semantic games: “There’s no policy of separating kids.” They knew full well that if you go to a policy of zero tolerance and you put people in the criminal justice system, you’re separating them from their child for a day, for a week or whatever. So they knew full well what they were doing. >>Why? Why do that?>>Obviously the administration wanted to send a message. They wanted to send a deterrent message through a very dramatic and, in my judgment, inhumane way in the hope that they would scare these people off and have them stay in Central America.>>Kelly at one point earlier on CNN had talked about the fact that DHS had considered it. It was no longer being considered. When you heard him say that—>>When I heard John say that publicly, I thought to myself—I remember what I thought, which was, I am in a posture where I’m not going to criticize my successor, and I’m not going to criticize what the men and women of DHS are doing, because the job is hard enough without a prior secretary criticizing you. But if we go to a policy or practice of separating families, I’m going to have to speak out. And I did in summer of 2018, just because I thought the policy was so wrong that I felt as though I had to take a position publicly on it.>>And when you hear the initial statement by Sessions that April day, where zero tolerance was now the policy, what were your thoughts?>>Well, there was so much noise around that announcement, that what this was in reality was a policy and practice of separating families, that there was little doubt that the main element of this whole action was separating parents from their kids, because they’re running migrants through the criminal justice system, hundreds at a time. And by the way, you cannot have an assembly-line system of guilty pleas where people who don’t understand English, who are supposed to be entering a plea knowingly and voluntarily all plead guilty 30, 40, 50 at a time. So it was never a zero tolerance policy. There was a policy of selective prosecution and selective separation of families in order to send a deterrent message, which was bound to fail because of the public outcry and the public backlash. And that’s exactly what happened. And if you look at the numbers month to month, it had little deterrent effect.>>… There was blowback, and there was a feeling that perhaps—and there were people on the other side of the divide at the White House who were pushing the president’s—that this is not palatable.>>And Americans reacted. Americans reacted to the sound of babies crying, the notion of separating a child from its mother. Whatever you think about illegal migration, except in extraordinary circumstances, there ought to be a basic human right and a basic human understanding in this world that you don’t separate a young child from his or her mother. Irrespective of enforcement policies, irrespective of what the laws say, irrespective of spikes in illegal migration, there ought to be a basic understanding in this country, and perhaps the entire planet, that you don’t separate a young child from its mother.>>… So presently, last few months, there is a crisis on the border. The numbers coming across are higher. … Arrests are at a two-time high in March, for instance. What’s going on? With the success or failure or however you define the strategies that have been used so far. This certainly frustrates the president, and there’s certain actions that come, like the purge at DHS. Where are we at this point, and what does it tell you?>>Well, ironically, the president, who in his rhetoric has been the harshest pro-border security president in modern times, is seeing illegal migration on our southern border at the highest levels it’s been in perhaps decades—more than Obama, more than Bush, maybe even more than Clinton, month to month. And so I look at that, and I think a couple things. One, what’s the reason for it? First of all, I think the smugglers now have the ability to move much larger groups of people. The smuggling operations through Mexico have become much, much more sophisticated, and they know how to move people on buses. And perhaps even—not even perhaps; I’m pretty sure— the president’s own rhetoric is exacerbating the problem. When he says, “I’m going to close down the border,” the coyotes then say to families in Central America, “You’d better go now, because he’s going to shut down the border in a month or a year, and I’ll offer you a discount, 2,000 a person.” So the coyotes exacerbate it. And when the president says, “I’m cutting off aid to Central America,” that gives people an impression and the feeling that there’s no hope here; I’d better leave now. And the smugglers, the coyotes, they always amplify these messages for their own purposes to get people to sign on to these huge discounts. And that’s where we are.>>The president says, “If the Democrats would let us build the damn wall, we’d solve the problem.” >>Well, first of all, building a wall for the sake of building a wall is not the answer. There are ways to achieve smart border security that are a combination of—ask any Border Patrol agent— are a combination of technology, more boats, more roads, more lights, more planes, perhaps even more Border Patrol agents, and various forms of barrier, not necessarily a wall, in the places where it makes sense to have it, to either fortify an existing structure or replace an existing structure. There are smart ways to go about it, but not simply building a wall for the sake of building a wall. And when I was in office dealing with this very difficult issue, in my three years I had to deal with a Republican House and, in the last two out of three years, a Republican Senate. And so working with a divided government is not new. And simply blaming the problem on the other party does not solve the problem; it just—you know, everyone’s in a standoff, which is where we are right now.>>The frustrations lead to a purge at DHS, and [Secretary Kirstjen] Nielsen is fired, and [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Ronald] Vitiello is out of there, and [USCIS’s Lee Francis] Cissna is eventually gone. And the thought is that if you guys can’t lower this number, you’re out of here. But a lot of these people are very—were good soldiers following the tenets that were laid out by the White House trying to accomplish it. Perhaps they were trying to accomplish it within the law so that it wouldn’t end up in the courts. Perhaps when the 10-city—arrests of families in 10 cities in one day is laid out, and the White House tells you to go, go, go, you might want to consider what are the ramifications of this, let’s think this out. But that’s a stall, it seems, by the White House. How do you see sort of what’s been going on and the purge itself and sort of what that might or might not accomplish?>>The problem with simply firing somebody because the numbers are high is—if you fire somebody, you’ve got to go find somebody else. And the more turnover there is, the more people are fired, because the president is not happy with— and he sees these really high numbers, the harder it’s going to be to find a replacement. There’s only a defined set of people who a, understand the problem, and b, are willing to take the job. And so every time you fire your secretary of Homeland Security or you fire the director of ICE or the acting director of ICE or the acting director of USCIS or the director of CIS, you’ve got to go find somebody else who can do the job. And a lot of people are simply unwilling to step into that frying pan because they know that they have no job security and they’re good till the next border spike perhaps.>>… So into the third year of the Trump administration, the hard-liners— what have the hard-liners accomplished? Certainly there are all these very public events that have taken place. There’s also a lot that happened that Sessions was doing at DOJ in hitting the levers to make it easier to do mass deportations, to change the system in the long term. How much have the hard-liners changed the system? How has it affected our country?>>Well, it’s important to remember this. It’s important to remember this: Immigration, illegal immigration was President— candidate Trump’s number one issue that he campaigned on. This was the central rationale for his candidacy. Yet now, almost three years into his presidency, illegal immigration on our southern border is at its highest levels that it’s been in for years. This president likes to give himself grades? I think most people, if they look at it objectively, would give him an F for, you know, clamping down on border security. If you’re a border security hawk, you can’t possibly be happy with the current situation. And so this issue takes nuance. It takes a balanced approach to gain wide public support for the proper approach to securing our border and treating people fairly once they’re here.

15 thoughts on “Zero Tolerance: Jeh Johnson Interview | FRONTLINE

  • This interview was conducted with FRONTLINE during the making of our documentary “Zero Tolerance.” Watch the full film, here:

  • Congressional Progressive Caucus – Seats in House Democratic Caucus: ‎95 / 235
    Tea Party Caucus – Seats in House Republican Caucus 23 / 199
    If we stop fighting each other, we can get this done.

  • And when people feel like they have no hope, no other choice, they will do anything in their power to make sure their families are safe and have the best lives they can. Including, going to a country illegally and trying to make their children’s lives better than they would be in the country where they could become victims of all kinds crime ridden things we probably won’t understand, unless we grew up in their villages, towns or city’s. Relationships between the governments and sending funding to other countries is the key to keeping immigration numbers down.

  • Johnson, who is a Muslim himself, claims that Trump and "many people" want to "vilify" the Muslim community (29 minutes-31 minutes). While there are doubtless MANY law abiding, peaceful Muslims, let's take a stroll down history and think about some notable Muslims, okay? Mohammad, who had many concubines, was a warrior who killed and pledged to kill infidels. That means anyone who is NOT Muslim. How about Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam? Kind of a warm, fuzzy gentleman, wouldn't you say? Hmm. Well, what connection do those who participated in 9/11, committing the biggest terrorist event on our soil, EVER, have with, say…Osama bin Laden or Mr. Bagdadi, a known terrorist and ISIS leader, rapist and murderer? The same as the Ft. Hood shooter, right? That's right….they were ALL Jews and Christians. Cough, cough

  • "Nixon goes to China moment"??? This fcked up our economy and jobs!!! This deal made China into a superpower while crippling us! I'm so disappointed with Obama and his team.. They need to step aside and stfu.. Bunch of failures and puppets of the elites.

    who truly needs to learn from our previous mistakes again?? Invest in your own fcking country!

  • So an illegal executive order is legal if Congress fails to pass a law? Sorry, not provided for in the Constitution.

  • If these countries can't get their shit together we should simply annex them. We are paying for this bullshit anyway. Mexico Honduras Guatemala all in. We can deal with the cartels and kill everyone of them. We run the show kit and caboodle. And all you progressive's who love diversity so much. We jam everyone whose coming from around the globe down there as well. Plenty of room more than enough resources if managed by a legitimate government. There solved it!

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