Although the future of President Barack Obama's executive action to protect undocumented children from deportation appears to be doomed, the incoming Trump administration has a duty to uphold a U.S. government promise to the 742,000 so-called 'Dreamers' who benefited under the program, Department of Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson said in an exclusive interview on Friday.
"We have told them (Dreamer applicants) ... that the information they provide will only be used for consideration of their application, except in extraordinary circumstances of public safety and national security and I believe that's a promise our government should continue to adhere to," he told Univision anchor Jorge Ramos.
Asked if the outgoing Obama administration could hide the personal information of the Dreamers who applied for protection under the 2012 program known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), Johnson conceded that the program was not protected by law as it was created by executive action by the White House.
"Executive action is not legal action so by its nature it can be changed by the next administration," he said.
But that did not mean that the Dreamers personal data had no legal protection, he added. "For years, when people apply for deferred action of other types of immigration relief we make promises and representations to them about the limited uses of the information ... this is something that goes back years and is honored from administration to administration," he said. "My view ... is that when the government makes a promise the government ought to keep its word."
Johnson said he hoped his successor would honor that tradition, adding that he had great respect for General John Kelly, nominated by president-elect Donald Trump as the next Department of Homeland Security chief.
"I believe John Kelly to be a man of character and integrity ... I'm sure he will carefully consider these issues. He is not at all cavalier and I think he cares about people," he said.
In the interview Johnson questioned Trump's plans to expand the border wall with Mexico, saying it was not the "smartest investment in taxpayer money."
Johnson pointed out that the Obama administration already built about 700 miles of wall and fencing along the border "in places where it makes sense to ... build a wall," but that large parts of the southwest border is desert and mountains. "You know, if someone's determined to climb a 10,000-foot mountain, I doubt a 10-foot wall is going to deter them once they get there," he said.
"So you talk to border security experts, they’ll tell you that what we need on the border is surveillance, it's technology, the ability to monitor and detect illegal migration," he added.
Earlier on Friday Trump tweeted that Mexico will reimburse American taxpayers for a new border wall and that U.S. spending will be for the "sake of speed."
His tweet came as congressional Republicans and his top aides consider a plan to ask Congress to appropriate U.S. tax payers money for a border wall using an existing law authorizing fencing and other technology along the southern border.
Johnson's position on DACA was also laid out in a letter sent to 111 members of Congress on Dec 30.
"Since DACA began, thousands of Dreamers have been able to enroll in colleges amd universities, complete their education, start businesses that help improve our economy, and give back to our communities," he wrote. "We continue to benefit as a country from the contributions of those young poeple who have come forward and want nothing more than to contribute to our country and our shared future."
President Barack Obama told Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday that he would get back into politics to defend the rights of Dreamers who entered the United States illegally as children.
Obama raised the issue in a meeting with President-elect Donald Trump in which they discussed immigration issues including DACA, a program that protects undocumented children from deportation and allows them to study and get jobs.
Trump has pledged to reverse Obama's executive actions, including DACA, though he softened his tone after the election, suggesting in one media interview that he would "work something out that's going to make people happy and proud."
Whether President-elect Trump follows through with his promises is one of the biggest fears of undocumented immigrants, according to immigrant advocates who warn that personal data provided on applicant forms by the DACA recipients - such as addresses and telephone numbers — could be used to deport them if the program was axed.
The status afforded by DACA does not lead to residency or citizenship and must be renewed every two years. While Obama expanded the program in 2014, removing an age cap and making the status renewable every three years, the expansion was halted by a lawsuit and a tied Supreme Court decision.
Watch the full interview with Jeh Johnson on Al Punto, Sunday 10.00 am EST.