Former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson on NPR: Obama Admin Did Expand Family Detention

Apr 2, 2019
10:05 AM

2014 Official portrait of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson (Public Domain)

On Tuesday morning, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson spoke with NPR’s Rachel Martin about President Trump’s threats to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border and cut aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. During the interview, Johnson talked about it is important to look the causes as to why more Central American families and children are arriving at the border. He also spoke about the need to understand why the current situation is taxing Border Patrol and ICE. However, what struck us was Johnson’s confirmation that when he was heading up DHS under the Obama administration, they did push to expand family detention in 2014—one of the foundations that many believe has given Trump the authority to be more aggressive on immigration enforcement now.

Here is a transcript of that exchange:

RACHEL MARTIN: The Obama administration did some of those same things the Trump administration is doing, I mean, to lesser degrees, but you ended up expanding family detention. What effect did that have on the overall numbers of people coming over the border?

JEH JOHNSON: We expanded family detention. You’re correct. When I was in office, I was surprised to learn that of 34,000 beds, we only had 95 detention beds for families. So we expanded that, and anecdotally we saw that families were surprised that we had done that and were calling back home to Central America to say that they were being detained. 

RM: Does it change people’s calculus?

JJ: Well, in the short term it does. You can do things on our southern border and change enforcement policy that will have a short-term effect and a drop-off in the numbers. So after we did a number of things in 2014, we saw a drop in the numbers for about a year, year-and-a-half, but then as long as the underlying conditions exist, the numbers will always revert back to their longer-term trends, and that’s what President Trump is seeing right now. 

After the interview, NPR immigration reporter Joel Rose made this point about Johnson’s remarks: “Well, I was thinking about the Obama administration, which had its own migrant crisis as you mentioned back in 2014, starting in 2014, with a spike in unaccompanied children showing up at the border, and one of the things that the Obama White House tried to do back then to deter those children from coming was to try to make it easier to detain and to deport migrant kids, which is something that the Trump administration is trying to do again now. The courts did not let the Obama administration do it then. They’re not likely to let the Trump administration do it now either. But it strikes me that, you know, immigration hard-liners say that’s something that was missing from the Obama response, and hard-liners would say that it’s one of the reasons that why we continue to see migrants coming here because they’ll know they’ll have a chance to be in the country while they’re waiting for their asylum claims to be heard in immigration court. Hard-liners would argue that is one of the pull factors that is allowing this crisis to continue.”

The full segment is here: