U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson presented lessons in public service, reporting suspicious behavior and the prevailing conflict between national freedom and national security at the Sanford School of Public Policy Thursday night.
The talk was part of Duke’s fifth annual commemorative event in recognition of the 9/11 attacks. Johnson talked with David Schanzer, associate professor of the practice in Sanford and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, about the “war on terror” immediately following 9/11, precautions the DHS is taking against foreign intervention in the presidential election in November and Johnson’s current thoughts on immigration.
A major theme was Johnson’s emphasis on the evolution of the terrorist threat from one of clearly defined military objectives such as that of Al Qaeda to a more faceless brand of “home-grown” terrorism. He noted that counterterrorism today extends far beyond the military.
“We’re in a very different place right now that requires a collective government effort,” Johnson said.
On the subjects of maintaining election integrity and quelling illegal immigration, Johnson described his ongoing campaigns to offer in-house vulnerability assessments and best practices information sharing for local governments organizing elections as well as to continue displacing immigrants without legal status apprehended at the border back to their home countries in accordance with immigration laws.
But just as Johnson began to address the issue of immigration before the audience, a group of people in the balcony alcoves let down a banner featuring the names of the "North Carolina 6"—what activists have been calling several young men who left El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and who have all been detained recently by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Wildin Guillen Acosta, a 19-year-old Riverside High School student who fled gang violence in his native Honduras in 2014, attended Johnson's event, along with a group of advocates that included Durham public school teachers and other students.
Acosta has been making local headlines this past year after he was detained for six months in a federal immigration detention center.
“He is one of the Central American children you are talking about, he is standing right there. How do you tell him that you detained him for nine months just because he was on his way to school?” asked one of Acosta's advocates, directed toward Johnson.
Johnson replied, noting that immigration is the most emotionally difficult issue he has ever dealt with in public service and that he wishes he could embrace and adopt all of the hundreds of immigrant children he has encountered in holding centers in South Texas, but that it is simply not feasible.
“I signed up for this job and I signed up to enforce the law in as humane a manner as we can. Do we always do it perfectly? No. And there are plenty of people who are always ready to criticize and point out our flaws," he said.
Johnson then offered to meet with Acosta in private following the event.
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Acosta told The Chronicle that during his private meeting with Johnson, which lasted approximately 20 minutes, he told Johnson about being detained and described the federal immigration detention center in Georgia.
When Acosta told him about a friend of his in detention that had requested medical assistance but was denied, Johnson "didn't want to answer the question," Acosta said.
Johnson said he was going to investigate the detention center, however, added Acosta.
Overall, Acosta noted that he did not get exactly what he hoped for from meeting with Johnson, but that "a little bit is better than nothing."
"I never thought I was going to speak with the [Secretary of Homeland Security]. It was something surprising, people so powerful to come to an immigrant like myself and talk to me face-to-face," he explained. "It’s something that you don’t see."
Acosta added that Johnson's staff told him that this was only Johnson's second time meeting with protestors at an event.
Several students, faculty and spectators reacted positively to Johnson's talk.
Freshmen Maya Samal said she appreciated how Schanzer and Johnson did not delve into more heated political issues and were able to resolve the brief stir-up surrounding immigration in a surprisingly calming way.
Sophomore James Hwang noted the significance of the talk.
“I was actually in the overflow room, and I think that’s a testament to just how important this talk was and how important terrorism and illegal immigration is to the students and the people who showed up today," he said.
Michael Sprayberry, director of emergency management in North Carolina who attended the talk, similarly praised Johnson.
“He was able to address some questions from some surprising guests about immigration, and I thought he had a lot of candor,” he said.