On Monday, UNCW invited (and presumably paid a hefty speaking fee to) former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to deliver what was billed as a “Moral Leadership Lecture” as part of the Leadership Lecture Series. Former Sec. Johnson’s (virtual) presence in Wilmington should be an affront to anyone who was outraged by kids in cages. Johnson is more responsible than most for the circumstances that created the horrific and ever-expanding war on undocumented communities in this country. Even the current liberal administration has not slowed down, with Biden embracing a Trump-era rule in order to turn away migrants at the border due to pandemic concerns (the only “pandemic concern” that these migrants are really facing is entering the world’s #1 COVID-19 incubator). How did we get here from the supposed Obama Era of Amnesty and Humane Policy? Johnson and his cadre led us down this path.

First things first, let’s clear the air. Obviously it’s not one single secretary’s fault that America’s immigration system is absolutely broken. This can be attributed to years of partisan gridlock, culminating in the 2013 destruction of Senate-passed legislation at the hands of ‘reasonable moderate’ John Boehner and the House Freedom Caucus (a collection of some of the worst sickos and cranks in the history of the American government). Johnson was DHS head for the tail-end of these negotiations, sworn in just before Christmas in 2013. Johnson was coming off of his role as General Counsel to the Department of Defense, where he allegedly “personally” gave the approval of the legality for the Osama bin Laden assassination. The first blow to come during his tenure as DHS secretary was the refusal of House Republicans to put the Senate-passed bill to any vote, hearing, or debate. Directed by the President, Johnson began writing executive orders to exercise the Obama vision of immigration policy upon the country (a vision that, of course, led to the highest number of immigrant removals by one president in the history of the country).

The slew of executive orders that Johnson authored at the behest of President Obama were a mixed bag.  The only purely good executive orders targeted those already living here: extending DACA and DAPA to cover more people (our position maintains that no person is illegal, and that these individuals affected by these programs should be granted full citizenship free of charge). However, the rest of these executive orders range between unhelpful to actively harmful. One executive order proposes restructuring the pay system for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in order to reward their members for “recordbreaking (sic) numbers of criminal removals,” while another “strengthen[s] border security” by commissioning multiple task forces focused on the southern border, both land and maritime (ignoring, of course, that smugglers regularly bring in products like marijuana through our northern border). Another order of note allows the immigration system to be circumvented by business owners and corporations, quickly approving green cards for those migrants that have a job lined up (and an employer willing to sponsor them). This order in particular allows for the upholding of the neoliberal capitalist mentality that treats a labor force as disposable and funnels in cheaper and less regulated labor in order to drive down costs and prevent organization by any cohorts of labor.

But the crown jewel of these executive orders remains the most controversial and perhaps the most parroted talking point by the Obama-Biden defenders both online and in legacy media. When disparaging the Trump administration’s shift in focus to deporting anyone that they could find, the center-left commentariat would often point to the Obama administration’s adoption of different priorities for deportation and how this policy was much more humane. While the Republicans railed against President Obama for letting MS-13 (a homegrown U.S. gang that literally started in California) and other vicious gangs into the country, the policy was exactly the opposite. Johnson’s policy basically let any non-criminal undocumented immigrants stay, while focusing resources on breaking up gangs. The issue with this policy, which, on the face seems decent, is that it accompanied the implementation of Consequence Delivery System (CDS), a program that overtly criminalizes border crossing, which was previously a civil offense. This program, which sounds like the name of the justice system in a dystopian novel, is basically what allowed DHS to crack down at the borders, using criminal prosecutors and forcing more people out. Johnson’s policy was simply an executive order; when Trump’s sycophants took office, they were easily able to overwrite the past directives and begin a deportation spree.

Johnson is now a private citizen; as a private citizen he has the right to seek employment wherever he sees fit. Not content destroying families domestically, Johnson now works for Lockheed Martin and U.S. Steel, where he enables the destruction of families overseas. This is sadly the norm for politicians in this country, coming and going between the private and public sectors where their decisions in the government affect their profits at whatever corporation they serve. At least a portion of Lockheed Martin’s $6,800,000,000 in profits in 2020 went to paying a former cabinet secretary a mere three years after he left office. While this corporate behavior may not be technically illegal, it does not sound to me like the Moral Leadership that Johnson was brought in to discuss.

Jeh Johnson might not be personally responsible for the totality of the circumstances that we face now, where the Biden administration is dealing with nearly 9,000 unaccompanied minors in some facilities that are at greater than 700% capacity with some children are not able to shower more than once every five days. However, that does not ignore the fact that he contributed to the dysfunction, and oversaw incredibly active ICE and CBP agencies that rained misery down upon thousands and thousands of migrants. His policies were integral to the rise of Obama as the Deporter-in-Chief and laid the groundwork for the massive and ongoing crisis catalyzed by the Trump administration and seemingly ignored by the new Biden administration. Just as—according to Jeh Johnson and his bosses—those born on the other side of an arbitrary line on a map are not welcome here, Johnson and his cadre of evildoers are not welcome in Wilmington, if the YDSA has anything to say about it. 

By Hanson Egerland, Managing Editor