A serious mission, but DHS chief is low-key in campus talk

When the Secret Service makes an appearance, it’s usually not a laid-back affair. But when U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson spoke on campus last night at an event hosted by the Berkeley Forum, instead of standing behind a podium and orating like many public officials are wont to do, he walked down to the floor to talk directly to students.

“I love college campuses,” he began, coffee mug in hand. “The energy, the youth, the dreams, the aspirations.”

Johnson has two kids in college and says his son gets a kick out of his dad’s visits. “Does anyone know what happens when a lot of uniformed police officers show up in front of a freshman dorm without notice?” the secretary asked the crowd. “You hear a lot of doors slam and a lot of toilets flush.”

The appearance at International House by the nation’s top security official was far more relaxed.

Joking aside, Johnson jumped into discussing the key points of his talk, called “Threats to the Homeland.”

First on the list? Terrorism.

“Counterterrorism has to be the cornerstone of our mission,” said the secretary. He said the global terrorist threat has evolved from terrorist-directed attacks to terrorist-inspired homegrown threats. “That type is harder to detect because the actor can act with almost no notice,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s the new reality that we’re in.”

jeh johnson 04_750

Johnson attended Morehouse College, as did Martin Luther King Jr. and Spike Lee. (Official U.S. Department of Homeland Security photo by Jetta Disco)

How is the government working to counter violent extremism? It’s a whole-government approach, said Johnson, and it requires the public’s help. “If you see something, say something,” he encouraged the audience. Also, he said it’s important to work together to help change the messages young people — especially those who might be inclined to turn toward violence — receive.

Next on the list? Immigration — a subject that students and community members had been protesting outside the building, calling into question the government’s deportation policies.

Before the talk began, Johnson approached the demonstrators in attempt to discuss their concerns, but they were unwilling to speak with him. “Every time I encounter protesters, I try to talk to them,” said Johnson. “I admire and respect the strongly held point of view outside. I wanted to talk to them, but didn’t get a chance.”

He went on to explain that deportation numbers, which reached a high of 400,000 in 2012, will have dropped some 100,000 by the end of the fiscal year. “This is pursuant of the new policy the president and I want to go toward, which is fewer deportations, fewer families being broken apart, fewer deportations of people who have been in this country for years and have committed no crimes, and focusing on the convicted criminals… Let’s focus on going after the threats to public safety.”

There are some 11 million undocumented people in this country, he said, and more than half have been here more than 10 years. “They are becoming integrated members of society. We want to provide an earned path to citizenship, which only Congress can provide, in comprehensive immigration reform.”

jeh johnson 03_750

Johnson asked the audience to name the presidential line of succession. A political science major volunteered and got it right. (UC Berkeley photo by Anne Brice)

During the student question portion of the talk, an audience member interrupted the secretary, and after a few minutes was escorted out, along with two other demonstrators. Johnson continued to answer audience questions through outside protest noise, which eventually died down.

One student asked, “In response to the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East, Germany has promised entrance to 800,000 refugees and Venezuela 20,000, and only a couple of days ago, Obama promised 10,000 refugees entrance. And I wonder, why is there a hesitancy and what can you do to speed up the process?”

Johnson answered, “In addition to accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees, the U.S. government already provides billions of dollars to humanitarian assistance — something like $4 billion. We’re the single biggest donor to that effort overseas. We want to do more. We will do more. And we want to do it as quickly as possible. But like everything in government, you’ve got to do it with the resources that you have.”

The secretary ended his talk with an inspirational message to students, encouraging them to pursue a career in public service. “The basic instinct in all of us is to serve and help people,” he said. “Those of you who are thinking about a career in public service, don’t lose that dream.”

Founded in 2012, the Berkeley Forum is a nonpartisan student-run group on campus that hosts debates, panels and talks with guest speakers in a wide range of fields. The forum’s goal is to serve as a platform for free expression on the campus, giving students the chance to hear from people they might not otherwise. Learn more about the Berkeley Forum.