WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is steeped in the struggle for black civil rights.
His uncle, a Tuskegee airman, was arrested for trying to integrate an officers’ club. His grandfather’s 1956 essay about the plight of African-Americans in the South was praised by Martin Luther King Jr. Johnson himself attended Morehouse College with Spike Lee and King’s son, and he plotted student marches at the Atlanta home of King’s widow, Coretta Scott King.
Now Johnson, 56, is at the center of another issue that sparks debate over civil rights: how to deal with millions of undocumented immigrants, mostly Latino, who are seeking to remain in the country legally.
This week, President Barack Obama announced that he is giving up on Congress and will pursue a remake of the nation’s immigration system on his own. He put Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. in charge of delivering recommendations on how far he can go under the law.
The issue is one of the most emotional and contentious in Washington. Activists have chained themselves to the White House gates and held a prayer vigil in front of Johnson’s Georgetown home. But Johnson — a lawyer who previously served as the Pentagon’s general counsel — is careful to frame his approach to immigration less as a civil rights matter and more as a legal question.
“It’s a big, contentious, emotional issue, which is also laden with politics,” he said in an interview. “We’re trying to find the best, most-workable and most-sustainable position under the law.”
This lawyerly approach frustrates advocates on both sides of the immigration issue, and it has had that effect on other activists, on both sides of the political divide, during his time in the Obama administration.
At the Pentagon, Johnson angered social conservatives by helping lead the effort to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning openly gay troops. But he also riled the antiwar left, which labeled him the “drone lawyer” for his role in expanding the administration’s aggressive drone policies.
Beyond the politics, the urgency of the immigration question was made clear to Johnson during a Mother’s Day tour of a border control station in McAllen, Texas. The station has been overwhelmed in recent months by tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America coming across the Mexico border.
“Where’s your mother?” Johnson asked one young girl.
“I don’t have a mother,” she replied tearfully, according to Johnson. “I’m looking for my father in the United States.”
Johnson told a congressional panel that he “returned to Washington the next day determined to do something about this situation.”
In his office, Johnson has a framed letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, thanking his grandfather, Charles Johnson, for serving on a 1936 commission that examined the farm tenancy system.
It is a reminder that public service, at the highest levels, runs in the family.
Charles Johnson was an influential sociologist who served as president of Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville. In 1956, he published an essay in The New York Times, “A Southern Negro’s View of the South,” that examined the African-American struggle for “full American citizenship.”
Although Southern blacks faced a hostile environment, he wrote, they had not become bitter, hostile or despairing, exhibiting, instead, “something closer to forbearance.” Martin Luther King Jr. sent Charles Johnson a note praising the essay as “the best statement that I have read in this whole area.”
Jeh Johnson — whose name, pronounced “jay,” comes from a Liberian chief his grandfather met on a U.N. mission — grew up in the affluent, mostly white suburb of Wappinger Falls, N.Y.
He would eventually marry a woman who grew up directly across the street, Susan DiMarco, a former dentist, who is white. They have two children and maintain homes in Washington and in Montclair, N.J., where Johnson, on weekend getaways, tends to his azaleas and the 200 model trains in a basement evocation of the Northeastern rail system.
Johnson’s father, an architect also named Jeh, served on an urban planning commission for President Lyndon B. Johnson. He urged his son, an underachieving high school student, to consider Morehouse.
At a commencement address at his alma mater in May, the younger Jeh Johnson described his cultural awakening. Johnson, a political science major, had a 1.9 grade point average as a freshman but finished with straight A’s, inspired by the marches aimed at turning King’s birthday into a Georgia state holiday.
Louis Farrakhan and the late Zimbabwean leader Joshua Nkomo spoke at the graduation ceremony for their Class of 1979.
“The great struggles of the civil rights movement — the marches, the sit-ins, the freedom rides — were over,” Johnson told the 2014 graduates. “So we were rebels without a cause. We looked for anything to protest or march to.”
Martin Luther King III, whom Johnson calls “Marty,” said in an interview that Johnson “had a very strong commitment, and always has, to history. Understanding the struggles that people went through is very important to him. His own family heritage is significant. He definitely had a strong commitment to ensuring, trying to create, a community where there is justice and fairness.”
Before being sworn in as homeland security secretary in December, Johnson had virtually no immigration experience. His selection by Obama to replace Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, was interpreted in the news media as a shift of emphasis away from immigration policy toward national security.
At the Pentagon, Johnson had developed a hawkish reputation. The peace group Code Pink protested in advance of his Senate confirmation hearing by projecting the documentary “Killer Drones and Secret Wars” on the brick facade of his home in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood.
“It’s fair to say he wanted to prosecute the most effective counterterrorism operations possible under the law,” said Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense from 2009 to 2012. “I do not think he was in the business of bending or changing the law to allow us to do some things we shouldn’t be doing. But within the law, he was willing to pursue the terrorism fight very aggressively.”