U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson was in Illinois Friday at the request of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) to tour the Broadview Immigration Detention Center and discuss federal deportation policies with immigration reform advocates.
U.S. Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL,4) and Bill Foster (D-IL,11) joined Johnson and Durbin on the morning tour of the detention center, where they talked with individuals awaiting deportation.
"We spent time one minute talking to somebody who's about to be deported, and then literally two minutes later we walked out to the family visiting area and spoke with his mother who was trying to see him, catch a glimpse of him, just before he was deported," Johnson said regarding his visit to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Broadview. "Those are the kinds of vivid interactions that I think it's good for us in public service, who administer and enforce the law, to have on a routine basis. So that was one of the reasons that I'm sure Senator Durbin wanted me to come here to see Broadview, and I'm glad I did that."
The Homeland Security secretary added that the "visit to Broadview this morning brings home some of the heartbreak" felt by families impacted by deportations.
The four officials also met with Syrian-American and Muslim community organizations in Willowbrook to discuss "more community engagement in the Department of Homeland Security countering violent extremism," Johnson said.
The policymakers then gathered in downtown Chicago to meet with supporters of comprehensive immigration reform, including representatives from the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, among other groups.
Johnson is currently leading a review of the Department of Homeland Security's policies to see if deportations of immigrants living illegally in the country can be handled more humanely. That review, which President Barack Obama ordered back in March, is expected to be finished sometime in August. As part of the review, Johnson is meeting with community organizations to gather feedback about federal deportation policies.
"We can and should enforce our laws consistent with American values, and part of enforcing the law consistent with American values is that we do so in a humane manner and we do so in a way, to the fullest extent possible, [that] respects the sanctity of the family unit," he told reporters this afternoon at the Dirksen Federal Building. "I think there's room for improvement in that regard."
Obama's order for a review of deportation policies follows months of inaction by House Republican leadership on comprehensive immigration reform. Bipartisan legislation to overhaul the country's immigration system already passed through the Democratic-controlled Senate last June, and GOP leaders have refused to bring it up for a vote.
Gutierrez said the officials and community leaders discussed steps that the "Executive Branch of government can take in lieu of legislative action."
"If [House leadership] will not act, the president will act, I'm sure of that, in a broad and definitive manner to put our immigrant community in a safe place" until Congress passes immigration reform, the congressman said.
Durbin added that Obama has "told Congress that we have until the end of July to pass this comprehensive immigration reform, and if we fail, if the House will not call this measure ... then we have to consider the alternatives, and the alternatives are not as good — decisions by the president, decisions by the Executive Branch. We talked about those today."
"Everything we discussed today would change if the U.S. House of Representatives would call that bill to the floor for a vote, because it would pass, and the president would sign it, and finally our broken immigration system would start moving on a more just, a more effective path," Durbin added.
Gutierrez, meanwhile, stressed that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's surprising loss Tuesday does not mean immigration reform is dead, as some had suggested following Cantor's primary election defeat by Tea Party-endorsed candidate David Brat, who ran on an anti-immigrant platform.
Cantor's loss, Gutierrez said, does not change the fact that on Wednesday there were still "dozens of men and women in the Republican Party that were ready to join hundreds of men and women in the Democratic Party to pass comprehensive immigration reform."
When asked if a vote on comprehensive immigration reform in the lower chamber will have to wait until after the midterm elections, Gutierrez explained that House Republicans have "some internal problems, and as they're grappling with that, I can understand how they might not be able to bring up immigration reform as a policy issue" right now.
"I'm being respectful to their process, to that internal process that they have to deal with in terms of electing their leadership, but my point is next Thursday, that will be over," the congressman said of the scheduled day House Republicans are expected vote on a new majority leader.
Gutierrez warned that if House Republicans fail to tackle immigration reform, "They will cease to exist as a national party."
"I don't say that as a partisan Democrat," he said, explaining that Latinos will not forget the House GOP's inaction on immigration reform when they go to the ballot box.
Meanwhile, Johnson was asked about the surge of migrant, Central American children crossing the southern border in Texas. Johnson reiterated similar comments he made Thursday in light of news that border officials are looking into allegations that unaccompanied children migrating to America are suffering abuse at the hands of immigration agents. Those allegations were contained in a formal complaint filed by five civil and human rights organizations with the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday. Read about the complaint here.
"Those who might be contemplating sending their children unaccompanied to the southwest border, [and] cross into our country illegally, that's not a safe situation," Johnson told reporters. "The processing center in south Texas is no place for a child. It's no place for an unaccompanied child. Turning your children over to a criminal smuggling organization to be brought into the United States is not the safest" plan.
Johnson explained that the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants a two-year protection against deportation for immigrants who came to the United States as young children prior to June of 2007, "is not available for children who come to the country today, tomorrow or yesterday."
"It's important to underscore that children who are being sent by their parents into the United States because they think that somehow the law will take care of them, DACA and the contemplated [immigration reform] legislation will not do that," Johnson stressed.