If Jeh Johnson’s testimony Tuesday morning before the House Committee on Homeland Security was meant as a goodwill mission, it didn’t go too well.
The Secretary of Homeland Security appeared before the committee to defend the president’s executive action on immigration, and in the process reified some of conservatives’ most bombastic anti–White House talking points. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) pressed Johnson on the status of four men apprehended crossing the border who are linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party, a group the State Department designates as a terrorist organization.
“You said they would be deported,” said Chaffetz. “Did you deport them?”
“Uh, no, not at this point,” Johnson replied.
He said two of the four are currently being detained.
“Two others were released by the judge,” he continued. “Not my preference.”
The two men the judge released are now seeking asylum in Canada.
This part of the testimony was cringeworthy, and Chaffetz pounced.
“You told the world that you were going to deport these four people with ties to terrorist organizations,” he jabbed. “That’s not what happened!”
It wasn’t Johnson’s only excruciating moment.
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) pressed him on a report from the Hill that the Department of Homeland Security released more than 36,000 undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions in 2013 instead of deporting them.
“At the end of the year 2014, how many criminal aliens have been released?” asked Duncan (R-SC).
Johnson estimated that about 30,000 undocumented immigrants with criminal records will have been released into the United States instead of deported.
“I believe it should be lower,” Johnson added.
“Why would you pass another law when the Administration fails to enforce the current laws that are on the books?” said Duncan.
This line of criticism could prove fruitful for Republican lawmakers, as it lets them tear into the White House’s immigration policy while burnishing their national security bona fides. As a plus, it lets them change the conversation: Instead of focusing on what to do with the millions of undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S. who don’t have criminal convictions (Hint: Don’t say “self-deportation), Republicans can put the White House on defense, raising questions about why it isn’t tougher on terrorism and crime. Given Johnson’s testimony this morning, the Administration may have a hard time producing satisfactory answers.