Jeh Johnson has been confirmed by the Senate to be the new secretary of Homeland Security. Not only is it one of the most challenging jobs in all of federal government, but there’s not a lot of experience to draw upon as the new appointee charts his course. There have been a grand total of four secretaries of the department and two acting secretaries. There is no dog-eared training manual for this post.
So as those of us on the border say welcome aboard to the new chief, here are five issues that are facing Sec. Johnson:
Vacancy at CBP
Based on the Obama administration’s inability to fill the position of Customs and Border Protection commissioner permanently, you’d think the job required walking on hot coals while juggling sharp knives. Since President Obama took office, there has yet to be a Senate-confirmed commissioner in CBP’s top job.
We are fortunate that the extremely talented Thomas Winkowski is serving as the acting commissioner of CBP, having taken over for the previous acting commissioner, David Aguilar. Both gentlemen have brought to the job - albeit temporarily – a deep understanding of what it takes to move cargo and travelers in and out of this country securely and efficiently every day. Having Winkowski and Aguilar helming CBP has been no consolation prize.
I had the opportunity to visit personally with Gil Kerlikowske, the president’s pick for the job, whose Senate confirmation process started last week. He is a serious candidate for the job; there is no question his law enforcement experience. I stressed the need for the integration of security and trade facilitation, so one does not trump the other, while seeking consistent input from the private sector. From our conversation, I am confident that he understands where improvements can be implemented, and he pledged to seek the counsel of experts to assist and advise when needed.
But the agency is DHS’ most visible face for the business community. The CBP commissioner should be the chief implementer of the president’s vision of how our country should engage in global business, and thus should be the president’s appointee. Secretary Johnson will have to navigate and gain the trust of a trade community that for years has watched a changing cast of characters within CBP senior leadership.
Helping, not hurting immigration reform
We are closer than ever before of reaching a bipartisan deal on immigration reform. There is broad agreement that we need to ensure that American businesses can attract talent from around the globe, that we don’t want our universities to educate foreign students in needed fields and then send them back to their home countries, and that individuals who were brought to this country without proper documentation as children are a special case that deserve to be dealt with in a compassionate manner that recognizes that the U.S. is the only country they’ve ever known. With agreement on those big issues, the stage is set for thoughtful leaders to find a way through the thorny issue of how to deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants in this country who have been here for years and have otherwise stayed out of trouble.
But the president has so little credibility on Capitol Hill that when he attempts to engage on immigration reform, the cause actually loses traction. Secretary Johnson will have to work quickly to build relationships on both sides of the aisle to gain the confidence of lawmakers that DHS can deliver on the increased border security that will be part of any immigration deal.
Border security does not mean a fence
As the immigration deal takes shape, the secretary and president will also have to resist calls that border security should mean the construction of a fence from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas. That would be an expensive mistake. Secretary Johnson can also help redirect resources to the ports of entry, but I can’t stress enough he must address any border initiative with real data and resist blind staff increases and infrastructure investments because they sound good without proper checks and balances. By partnering with industry and using existing tools that are embraced by the public and private sector that measure efficiencies as the GAO suggested last July it will go a long way in ensuring investments are placed in the right place.
Effective leaders are also creative ones. Secretary Johnson will earn the respect from the trade community by making a commitment to seeking innovative solutions for moving cargo. That means ensuring that pre-clearance programs where cargo can be cleared for U.S. entry from its country of origin come online, that trusted shipper programs actually result in tangible benefits for participating companies, and that public-private partnerships for improved port staffing and infrastructure aren’t paid for solely on the backs of the trade community. Secretary Johnson does not come to the position with a wealth of trade experience; he should look to industry experts for best practices and new ideas.
High expectations in a dangerous world
Finally, an issue that faces anyone in this job: This is a dangerous world, and there’s very little margin for error at DHS. We learn everyday of new vulnerabilities in our transportation system, our critical infrastructure, and increasingly in the cyber world. Time is not on our side. Here’s hoping Congress and the White House give DHS the attention and resources the department and new secretary need. Shortchanging our homeland security mission could have precarious results.
Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido