Juan Williams: Johnson ready for clash

Juan Williams: Johnson ready for clash
© Greg Nash

The big news of the moment is President Obama’s decision, revealed Saturday, to delay executive action on immigration reform until after November’s midterm elections.

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But, make no mistake, such action is coming sooner or later. And, when it does, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will be the administration’s point man.

Johnson insists the Obama administration has already made the borders more secure.

That puts him at odds with House Republicans who cite lax border security as their number one reason for refusing to pass the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill.

House Republicans have pointed to concern over border security before. The most notable recent example came when they refused to go along with the administration’s request for funds to handle a surge of young people from Central America seeking refugee status.

“A larger presence of border patrol agents at the border, sitting on the bank of the Rio Grande River, is not what is needed to address the particular situation we faced over the summer,” Johnson said, referring to that surge, in an exclusive interview in his office.

He added: “If you look at the map, most of the kids and most of the family units that surged to a particular place in the Rio Grande Valley… the coyotes would tell them to cross the river and look for the nearest border patrol agent. So an increased presence of border patrol agents was not the solution to that problem.”

Johnson also argues that illegal crossing of the border is far down from a decade ago and notes that the Senate bill of comprehensive reform — ignored by the House — would add 20,000 agents to the existing force now on the border.

“We’ve put a fair amount of resources already on the border,” he said. “Not just boots on the ground but surveillance, technology. Some other pretty sophisticated risk-based strategies which have brought down the overall number of apprehensions which again are an indicator of total attempts of crossing the border illegally.”

Johnson added that the Senate bill’s “pathway to citizenship” for 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country would have helped to end the need for many illegal crossings “by providing a certain framework for a system broken right now” and “would have been good for business.”

For an Obama administration official, Johnson has surprisingly good relationships with Republicans. He was easily confirmed by the Senate with strong GOP support, receiving 78 votes overall, whereas other recent administration nominees, such as Labor Secretary Thomas PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE, struggled to win Senate approval.

Conservatives also cheered when Johnson loudly proclaimed the Unitesd States does not have “open borders,” and promised to quickly deport anyone – “consistent with our laws and values” — who crosses the border illegally.

“It’s the administration’s stance,” he said. “We do not have open borders — we will deport them. Clearly, I’ve been among the more visible proponents of that policy.”

Whenever the administration chooses to move ahead with executive action on immigration reform in the aftermath of the House Republican failure to deal with the crisis, Johnson’s good ties with conservatives will be tested.

The New York Times recently described Johnson as the administration official most likely to be the “main absorber of the flames of debate” over any independent action taken by the president.

To insulate himself from those “flames,” Johnson is spending time with lawyers.

“We want to make sure we do [immigration reforms] in the confines of existing law,” explained Johnson, who is a former partner at the top law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. “We’re spending lots of time meeting with lawyers. I’m not a practicing lawyer. Now I’m a client.”

The GOP House leadership issued a surprising statement after failing to pass a funding bill in August to deal with the crisis of children at the border saying: “There are numerous steps the president can and should be taking right now, without the need for Congressional action.”

Some Tea Party Republicans argue immigration law is Congress’ responsibility and not the prerogative of the executive branch.

“It is more nuanced than that,” Johnson insisted. “If I sat down with a conservative, I’m sure there are things they would say we should do through executive order… There are things that people on the Republican side of the aisle have urged us to consider doing that don’t require a change in law.”

Johnson declined to offer examples of such changes. He simply said: “It is all in a mix.” Sources indicate the administration’s emphasis will be on setting clear priorities for immigration agents and prosecutors on deporting criminals and allowing work authorization for people whose immigration status is not being acted on.

Johnson has been assertive in building relationships on Capitol Hill. He specifically mentions warm ties to GOP Sens. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnCongress must protect federal watchdogs Tom Coburn's annual gift to taxpayers Joe Biden still doesn't have a campaign theme MORE (Okla.) and John CornynJohn CornynGOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday New legislation required to secure US semiconductor leadership GOP skeptical of polling on Trump MORE (R-Texas), as well as Sens. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerBottom line GOP rallies around Trump after firing of Manhattan US attorney Bipartisan bill introduced to provide 0B in relief for restaurants MORE and Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranEspy wins Mississippi Senate Democratic primary Bottom Line Mike Espy announces Mississippi Senate bid MORE, both of Mississippi.

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Michael McCaul (R-Texas) was skeptical of Johnson when he was nominated, labeling him “a political hack.” But Johnson says he now has a good relationship with McCaul.

But McCaul still identifies tighter border security as his main concern. “If we can close the southern border in Mexico, that would solve 99 percent of our problems,” McCaul has said.

Johnson is not discouraged. He honors the deliberative process despite the partisan politics and obstructionist strategies running rampant in Congress.

“I got my start in public service on the Hill,” he said. “I was a congressional intern for Hamilton Fish, a very pro-civil rights and moderate Republican…By the next summer I got a job working for [New York Democratic Senator] Pat Moynihan… In your formative years, when you look up to an institution, part of that never leaves you. So I have a high regard for Congress and the role that they play. I have also found that a little bit of candor and bipartisan courtesy goes a long way.”

The heat coming from Congress whenever the administration takes executive action on immigration reform will test Johnson’s belief in candor and courtesy in dealing with Congress.

When that day comes, Johnson will be trying to sell the hard right of Congressional Republicans on reform they have repeatedly refused to buy.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.