Then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Capitol Hill in 2015. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

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“I’m quite sure that the option of separating kids was presented to me and my Obama administration colleagues at the White House. And it was just simply not something we were going to do.”

When President Barack Obama faced an immigration crisis on the southern border in 2014, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson had a list of every possible option drawn up for consideration to deal with the problem. But Johnson drew a moral line.

“From seeing these migrants up close and personal at border patrol facilities, when you see mothers literally clinging to their babies after they have carried them literally all the way from Central America, I could not pull a child from her mother,” Johnson told me in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “And I couldn’t ask someone in the border patrol or ICE to do that. Nor could I even float it as a deterrent measure. It’s just something I couldn’t do and my colleagues couldn’t do in the administration.”

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President Trump has no such qualms. The result of the “zero-tolerance” policy instituted by Attorney General Jeff Session is harrowing images and audio of children being separated from their parents. This immoral policy includes the use of “tender age” shelters as baby jails for infants and small children taken from their mothers. According to DHS on June 23, “As of June 20th, [the Department of Health and Human Services] has 2,053 separated minors being cared for in HHS funded facilities . . .  .” The ensuing outrage forced Trump to sign an executive order to stop the crisis he created. But that was only a cosmetic measure. The “zero-tolerance” policy continues as does the chaos created due to the moral void and incompetence in the Oval Office.

Johnson got into the ins-and-outs of the differences in response between the Obama and Trump administrations. But he was reticent to criticize the decision-making process, such as it is (snark mine), because he has been in their shoes. The options are terrible and nobody’s happy.

“As you know, we expanded family detention, which was sort of the opposite of separating families, keeping them together. And that was controversial. Very plainly, that was controversial,” Johnson said. “And I’m not claiming we were perfect. I mean, we made some mistakes. There were some lessons learned. This is a very, very difficult problem. And we had to make some very, very difficult decisions. Anytime you’re wrestling with border security, immigration matters, there are never any perfect solutions. No matter what you do, somebody’s going to be really mad at you.”


Jeh Johnson, secretary of homeland security under President Barack Obama, speaks with The Post’s Jonathan Capehart during an interview for the “Cape Up” podcast on June 22. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)

“It doesn’t take a lot of reflection to come to the conclusion that there is a global human right of every child to be with her parent. And there is global human right of every parent to be with her child,” said Johnson. “I fear that many of the parents of these kids have been deported.”

But when I asked Johnson about the morality of what is playing out and the public officials involved, he reinforced the line on child separation that he drew early in our conversation. “I can’t give you a window into the decision-making and the moral fiber of the people who are in decision-making positions today,” Johnson told me. “I can tell you how I felt at the time, which was this is simply not something I could do.

“I promised myself when I left office that I was not going to criticize or second-guess my successors unless — and I made this promise to myself over a year ago — unless they start separating families,” Johnson explained. “And when that happened, I decided I needed to speak out. Those of us with a public voice, and who understand the issue, and who had to manage this problem should speak out.”

Listen to the podcast to hear the former Defense Department general counsel reflect on his role in 2010 in ending the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military. I was also able to catch the savvy lawyer off guard by asking him about the national anthem protests in the National Football League. And when I asked Johnson if he had sympathy for the Trump officials carrying out these policies, he expressed a concern that is bearing itself out.

“The thing I worry most about right now, in this period,” he said, “is government decision-making in a bunker, in a bunker mentality where people shut out the objections and the cries and the images, and just continue down a certain path for the sake of being stubborn, for the sake of consistency, and not hearing in our democracy the objections and the outcry.”

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