DHS chief Jeh Johnson to ease fears on ‘Secure Communities’ but won’t scrap deportation program

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Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Thursday that he will not scrap a program that scours prisons and jails for illegal immigrants to deport, but did promise adjustments to make it more palatable to mayors and governors who have balked at cooperating with the Secure Communities program.

Mr. Johnson said he will try to work with “sanctuary” cities and states to assuage their concerns. The approach is starkly different from the one the administration took with Arizona, in which the Justice Department sued to halt the state’s stricter enforcement law.

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“I want a fresh start to this program, and I want a fresh conversation with mayors and governors around the country to make this program work more effectively,” Mr. Johnson told Congress in a wide-ranging hearing in which the secretary laid out some of his broadest public thoughts yet about how immigration laws should be enforced.

Mr. Johnson said he doesn’t want agents trying to capture illegal immigrants at courthouses because those who try to access government services deserve special protection at such facilities.

He also said there are limits to prosecutorial discretion, though he gave mixed messages about whether the administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a nondeportation policy for young adult illegal immigrants, should be applied case by case or to a whole class of people.

In a major public relations step, Mr. Johnson agreed to meet with the president of the union that represents agents and officers who conduct immigration enforcement in the interior of the U.S.

Having been sworn in as the fourth Homeland Security secretary in December, Mr. Johnson is still feeling his way through many of the thorny immigration issues his department faces.

On Thursday, he took fire from both sides. Democrats called for him to slow down deportations and say he is capturing rank-and-file illegal immigrants who are only trying to live and work in the United States. Republicans urged Mr. Johnson to enforce the laws as written to prevent any incentive for another wave of illegal crossings and lawless behavior.

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Mr. Johnson said he wants to step up enforcement on the border but to focus efforts in the nation’s interior on capturing serious criminals, national security threats and those who repeatedly violate immigration laws.

“We have to make hard choices. And in my view, in my judgment, the priorities must be border security, without a doubt, particularly the southwest border and some of the challenges we face there,” he said.

The secretary is reviewing a proposal to expand nondeportation policies such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The goal is to make deportation policies more humane and effective and could include the parents of eligible youths. The Secure Communities changes are also part of that review.

But Mr. Johnson said he is respecting a White House request to delay final decisions until later this summer to give Congress a chance to pass immigration bills.

Mr. Johnson wouldn’t discuss steps he is considering but said he thinks previous nondeportation orders may have been unclear.

“I see a certain lack of clarity in the prioritization and the guidance, and I think we could do a better job there,” he said.

Republicans said the Homeland Security Department has overstepped its limits by declining to go after a number of illegal immigrants.

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