U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said his visit Friday to a Chicago-area immigration detention center will help him as he reviews federal deportation policy at President Barack Obama's direction.
Johnson made the visit to Broadview Immigration Detention Center after an invitation from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.
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Speaking to reporters after the tour, Johnson described meeting families about to be separated by deportation, saying the interaction "brings home some of the heartbreak" for him. Minutes after talking to one man on the verge of deportation, Johnson said, "we walked out to the family visiting area and spoke with his mother who was trying to catch a glimpse of him before he was deported."
Johnson called on Congress to pass an immigration reform bill. But he added that he's looking for ways to reform the system "within the confines of existing law."
Durbin and two Democratic congressmen, Luis Gutierrez and Bill Foster, accompanied Johnson on the tour and spoke to reporters afterward. Gutierrez and Foster said the surprising election defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, has been misinterpreted as a death knell for legal changes to existing immigration laws.
"We should not use a primary in Virginia to determine the national policies of our country," Gutierrez said.
Johnson spoke about children crossing the border alone from Central America, a problem that has overwhelmed the Border Patrol.
"Those who might be contemplating sending their children to the southwest border to cross into our country illegally, that's not a safe situation," Johnson said. "Turning your child over to a criminal smuggling organization is not a safe thing to do."
He stressed that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program doesn't apply to newly arrived immigrants.