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.
“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.
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.
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.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, said the department’s policies resulted in “immigration-enforcement free zones.”
“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,” Mr. Goodlatte said. “This in turn has made it exceedingly difficult for Congress to fix our broken immigration system.”
Mr. Smith and other Republicans asked Mr. Johnson about more than 36,000 immigrants with criminal records who were released into communities last year while awaiting deportation.
Among those immigrants were dozens charged with murder, kidnapping and other major charges.
Even as Mr. Johnson was testifying, the House voted 218-193 to dedicate $5 million to fund a study of the releases. Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican who wrote the amendment, asked Mr. Johnson whether he would comply with the review. The secretary said he would.
The $5 million study still must survive Senate scrutiny before it becomes law.
While Republicans demanded more enforcement, Democrats pleaded with Mr. Johnson to curtail Secure Communities, a program created by the George W. Bush administration but dramatically expanded under President Obama.
The program takes fingerprints that localities run through the FBI and checks them against immigration databases to determine whether the person being checked is an immigrant eligible to be deported.
Backers, including the Obama administration, have argued that it’s an efficient way to identify the kinds of criminal immigrants the president has said he wants to target for deportation.
Some mayors and state lawmakers have balked, saying they believe the program scoops up lower-level criminals and that it’s hurting the ability of state and local police to work with immigrant communities.
More than five dozen localities and states have adopted policies saying that they won’t comply with the program — chiefly by ignoring requests to hold immigrants for pick-up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.
When it came to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Mr. Johnson told one lawmaker that administration officials are making decisions “on an individual basis,” screening each illegal immigrant for eligibility. He said case-by-case determinations are critical for it to be considered prosecutorial discretion.
But Mr. Johnson later told another lawmaker that they “can’t have a case-by-case judgment made with respect to how we’re going to administer this program.”