Jeh Johnson, Homeland Security chief, cites threat as some travel to fight in Syrian civil war

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Tamerlan Tsarnaev as an American. He became a U.S. legal resident in 2007, but he was not a citizen of the country. This version has been corrected.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Friday that Westerners heading abroad to fight in Syria’s civil war could threaten the United States and that illegal immigrants deserve a path to citizenship.

Delivering his first policy address since taking office in December, Johnson covered a broad range of topics, from appropriate uses of force by Customs and Border Protection agents to declining worker morale at Homeland Security, which has consistently received some of the lowest scores in the federal government’s annual worker-satisfaction survey.

DHS combined 22 agencies from across the government, including those in areas as varied as agriculture and defense. The relatively new organization operates with a sweeping mandate that includes counterterrorism, cybersecurity, immigration issues and natural-disaster responses.

The secretary noted that his morning intelligence briefings range in scope from “the latest terrorist plotting to a weather map,” adding that his department must constantly evolve to answer national security threats and hazards.

“Syria has become a matter of homeland security,” said Johnson, 56, the fourth Senate-confirmed secretary of Homeland Security.

Johnson said people from North America and Europe are traveling to war-torn Syria to fight, adding that “they will encounter radical, extremist influences” and possibly return to their home countries with the intent to do harm.

He also discussed home-grown terrorism, saying: “We face threats from those who self-radicalize to violence, the so-called ‘lone wolf,’ who did not train at an al-Qaeda camp overseas or become part of an enemy force, but who may be inspired by radical, violent ideology to do harm to Americans.”

He noted the Boston Marathon bombings in April that killed three people and wounded more than 200 others. The attacks were allegedly carried out by two brothers living in the United States who spent time in Muslim-dominated parts of Central Asia. One of the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed in a shootout with police, and the Justice Department has said it will seek the death penalty against the other, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Johnson also focused on immigration reform, calling on Congress to pass a comprehensive bill that dedicates more resources to border and port security, in addition to providing new options for some of the nation’s 11.5 million illegal immigrants to become citizens.

“This is not rewarding people for breaking the law,” he said. “It is giving them the opportunity to get right with the law. And it is far preferable to what we have now.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) indicated that Republicans are unlikely to pass an immigration measure soon, saying his party does not trust the Obama administration to enforce whatever legislation Congress might approve. Democrats responded by suggesting that Boehner is simply buckling to pressure from the most conservative members of his caucus.

In discussing other border issues, Johnson said Customs and Border Protection will soon publish its use-of-force policy to help alleviate concerns about violence against migrants, many of whom have confronted U.S. border officers by throwing rocks. Agent-
involved shootings have killed more than 20 people since 2010, according to a recent report in The Washington Post.

“The public’s attitude toward the entire federal government can be shaped by interactions with DHS,” the secretary said. “We must be mindful of this as we seek public support for our work.”

Johnson also said he wants to “inject new energy into the Department of Homeland Security” to address worker morale issues. He said he is working with the White House to fill the agency’s many leadership vacancies, which good-government groups have partly blamed for the employee satisfaction problem.

Johnson delivered his remarks during a forum at the Wilson Center headquarters in Washington.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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