By Mike M. Ahlers
The Syrian civil war "has become a matter of homeland security" as authorities seek to identify any foreign fighters who might be a threat to the United States, the new homeland security secretary said Friday.
Jeh Johnson, making his first major address after seven weeks on the job, said Syria "was the Number One topic of conversation" in talks this week with his counterparts in six European nations.
"Based on our work and the work of our international partners, we know individuals from the U.S., Canada and Europe are traveling to Syria to fight in the conflict," he said at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
"At the same time, extremists are actively trying to recruit Westerners, indoctrinate them, and see them return to their home countries with an extremist mission," he added.
The comments mirror concerns expressed by other Obama administration officials that young Americans, lured by radical Internet websites, would go to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and other hotspots, and would then return and conduct attacks in the United States.
Johnson said his agency, the FBI and the intelligence community are trying to identify foreign fighters who represent a threat to the homeland.
Separately, Johnson said his agency is "keeping a close eye on the Sochi Olympics" in support of Russian authorities.
He noted Thursday's Transportation Security Administration ban of toothpaste, liquids, gels and aerosols on flights between the United States and Russia.
He also repeated his call for comprehensive immigration reform.
"As a matter of homeland security, we should encourage these people to come out of the shadows of American society, pay taxes and fines, be held accountable, and be given the opportunity to get on a path to citizenship like others," he said. "This is not rewarding people for breaking the law; it is giving them the opportunity to get right with the law. And it is preferable to what we have now."
Based on comments off Capitol Hill on Thursday, prospects for passing a comprehensive immigration bill this year remain in doubt.
Johnson also told of visiting the Port Isabel Detention Center near Brownsville, Texas, where he saw about 1,000 people being detained.
About 18 percent were Mexican and the others represented more than 30 different nationalities who migrated through Mexico to get to the United States, he said.