DHS Secretary requests review of criminal immigrant releases

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Alex Wong, Getty Images

Updated at 3:20 p.m.

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's latest attempt to pressure House Republicans to act on immigration legislation will backfire and make action harder, a House committee chairman said Thursday.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., criticized Obama's move this week to delay the results of a review of the nation's deportations policy until late summer. White House officials said they wanted to allow House Republicans opportunity to act before Congress' August recess.

If they don't, Obama is expected to take steps on his own to curb deportations, which have reached record highs on his watch.

"When the president says he's going to set a time limit and then consider taking actions himself ... that makes doing immigration reform harder not easier," Goodlatte said during an oversight hearing with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

Johnson was in the midst of the administration's review of the government's deportation policies when the White House said it will be delayed until August, to give Congress time to act.

Legislation is stalled in the House, 11 months after the Senate passed a sweeping bill dealing with border security, workplace enforcement and eventual citizenship for millions. If the House does not act ahead of Congress' annual August recess, Obama is expected to take limited steps on his own authority.

Johnson has given little indication about what he will recommend. He said Thursday that a program to identify immigrants in the country illegally who are booked into local jails should get a "fresh start."

He told lawmakers the program known as "Secure Communities," which uses fingerprints submitted to the FBI to identify potentially deportable immigrants, should not be eliminated.

"I believe with the reality of where we are (Secure Communities) needs a fresh start," Johnson said. "I think the goal of the program is a very worthy one that needs to continue."

The program has drawn complaints from local law enforcement, and an increasing number of counties, cities and states are opting not to participate in the wake of recent court decisions raising questions about the program. Goodlatte called the program "one of the most efficient mechanisms for removing dangerous aliens from the United States."

Johnson also confirmed Thursday that his review is looking at refocusing priorities for who is deported. Priorities should include people who are threats to national security, public safety and border security, he said.

The secretary faced strong criticism from Republicans on both the review and the administration's use of discretion enforcing immigration laws. Goodlatte called the description of the review -- an effort to make immigration enforcement more humane, the administration says -- "simply code words for further ratcheting down enforcement of our immigration laws."

Johnson is also asking for an internal review of the Obama administration's release of tens of thousands of immigrants in the country illegally who were convicted of crimes and facing deportation. He's telling lawmakers he wants a deeper understanding of the issue.

Federal data published this month showed that the Homeland Security Department released 36,007 convicted criminal immigrants last year who are facing deportation, including those accounting for 193 homicide and 426 sexual assault convictions. The immigrants nearly all still face deportation and are required to check in with immigration authorities while their deportation cases are pending.

News of the releases, which came amid an ongoing review of the Obama administration's deportation policies, incensed Republican lawmakers who contend that President Barack Obama has not properly enforced immigration laws. The House Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said the releases "needlessly endanger Americans' lives."

In testimony sent to Congress ahead of a hearing by the committee Thursday, Johnson said he was "committed to enforcing our immigration laws in a manner that best promotes and ensures national security, public safety and border security." He said he has asked for a "deeper understanding" of the releases, and he pledged to continue to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ensure public safety.

Johnson said many of the releases were directed by an immigration judge or were prompted by other legal requirements. His written testimony did not provide additional details.

But Goodlatte said the agency's recent moves have simply made any reform of the immigration system impossible.

"The end result of DHS's practices is that the American people have lost all confidence in this Administration's willingness to enforce our current immigration laws or use any enhanced enforcement tools that Congress may give it. This in turn has made it exceedingly difficult for Congress to fix our broken immigration system," Goodlatte said.

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