WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson shot down claims on Thursday that a "porous" U.S. southern border is allowing terrorists, Ebola and a surge of unaccompanied minors into the country, despite claims to the contrary by some politicians.
Johnson tried to dispel rumors and dial back fears during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, saying there have been improvements to border security. He said the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended in fiscal year 2014 was 68,434 -- considerably lower than a projection of 90,000. Claims that four terrorists had crossed the border were false, he said, and the government is intensifying efforts to keep Ebola out of the U.S.
But that's not always what people are hearing from politicians or reading in the news, he said.
"Those of us in public office, and in the media –- whether in describing the border, ISIL or Ebola -- owe the public informed, careful, and responsible dialogue, not overheated rhetoric that is certain to feed the flames of fear, anxiety and suspicion," Johnson said. ISIL, the terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State, also is called ISIS.
Recent criticism of the Obama administration over border security has stoked fears over ISIS and Ebola, particularly by Republicans campaigning for November elections. Former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), now running for Senate in New Hampshire, said on Thursday that the border needed to be secured to prevent the spread of diseases into the country. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) said Tuesday that "at least" 10 members of the Islamic State were apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, a claim DHS said was false. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has said that four men with ties to terrorism were apprehended along the border.
Johnson said the four individuals were investigated and found to be members of the Kurdish Worker's Party, which he said "is actually fighting against ISIL and defended Kurdish territory in Iraq." The men remain in detention for unlawful entry, he said. (Chaffetz, for his part, continued to maintain after Johnson's speech that the men are terrorists, according to interview with CBS News.)
On Ebola, Johnson said the government is "heavily engaged" and is "enhancing our Ebola screening of air passengers from the three affected African countries, and we are continually evaluating whether more is appropriate."
"We very definitely in this country have the capability to deal with the Ebola virus," he said.
Johnson touted border security improvements, but said DHS was still working to improve policies on transparency and internal agency coordination. One change in DHS policy, however, has been receiving considerable pushback from immigration advocates: the increased practice of holding families in detention. The government has expanded facilities for detaining families -- largely mothers with children, many of them seeking asylum -- over the past few months, and plans to add more space.
Greg Chen of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which has been critical of family detention, asked Johnson during a question and answer period after the speech why the government is expanding family detention when many of the women and children being held are seeking asylum and have fled horrific violence.
Johnson said that given the increase this year in families crossing the border -- even though the numbers have dropped recently -- DHS needed to make sure it could detain them.
"We believe it's necessary to build more of that capability in the event we have another spike like we had last summer," he said.
Although Johnson acknowledged the influx of migrants over the past year was a "setback," he said there have been improvements in border security, from more resources focused on patrol to fewer border-crossings.
"In recent years, the total number of those who attempt to cross our southwest border has declined dramatically, while the percentage of those who are apprehended has gone up," he said. "Put simply, it’s now much harder to cross our border and evade capture than it used to be -– and people know that."