By Jim Acosta and Jeremy Diamond
December 2, 2014
After appearing briefly on the Obama administration's short-list to run the Pentagon, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson now has to survive a congressional grilling on the president's new immigration policy.
Testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday, Johnson said he is "fully comfortable" that President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration reform is within the President's legal authority. Johnson helped draft the President's plan to shield up to 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation and will make undocumented criminals a priority for deportation.
"Many of these individuals have committed no crimes and are not enforcement priorities. It is time that we acknowledge this as a matter of official policy and encourage eligible individuals to come out of the shadows, submit to criminal and national security background checks, and be held accountable," Johnson told the committee.
Republicans on the committee, starting with Chairman Mike McCaul, questioned the authority and timing of Obama's executive action on immigration and the impact of Obama's action on illegal immigration.
"The President's unilateral actions to bypass Congress on Nov. 20 undermine the Constitution and threaten our democracy," McCaul, R-Texas, said in a statement before the hearing.
McCaul questioned the timing of Obama's decision to act on immigration reform, which came after the midterm elections, calling it "more of a political decision than a policy decision."
Johnson would not comment on Obama's statements before he decided to use his executive authority on immigration, when Obama suggested he may not have the authority to act unilaterally to reform the immigration system.
Instead, Johnson stressed that administration officials "spent months" with lawyers to ensure all executive actions on immigration are legal and said the White House was repeatedly urged by members of Congress to hold off on executive action for months.
And the incoming chair of the House's top oversight committee Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz hit Johnson with a "gotcha" question during his speaking time.
Johnson found himself at odds with a statement Obama made just last week during an immigration speech while responding to hecklers
"What do you say to someone who believes the President took action to change the law?" Chaffetz said.
"We did not change the law," Johnson replied before Chaffetz played the clip of Obama at the event last week, saying: "What you're not paying attention to is I just took an action to change the law."
"So you say he didn't change the law, but the President says he changed the law," Chaffetz said.
"Somebody plays me an eight-word excerpt from a broader speech, I know it to be suspicious," Johnson retorted to laughter.
Johnson rejected Rep. Lamar Smith's claims that Obama's immigration action would lead to a surge in illegal immigration, insisting that the order will prioritize recent illegal migrants.
"Recent arrivals are priorities for removal," Johnson said. "Wherever I go I intend to highlight the fact that these new reforms prioritize recent illegal entrance."
The Obama administration had placed Johnson on a short-list to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. But an official said Tuesday that Johnson is no longer in contention for the job.
Johnson stressed that he wants to work with Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but another Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan said the issue is "a lack of trust of the American people in the administration to enforce the laws."
"Why would you pass another law when the administration fails to enforce the current laws that are on the books. Why pass another one that's not going to be enforced either?" Duncan said. "I think congress can pass a bill when the American people start regaining trust in the administration to actually to their job and enforce the laws that are already on the books."
Johnson pushed back and pinned the lack of a comprehensive bill on Congressional inaction.
"The President has said that would be his preference. The problem is we have no partner in Congress," Johnson said.
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