President Obama’s own words continue to be a major problem for his defenders, including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, the administration’s top immigration lawyer, who spent much of his Capitol Hill testimony Tuesday parsing or disagreeing with his boss’s flip-flops.
In a testy House hearing, Mr. Johnson disagreed with Mr. Obama’s 2010 prediction that an amnesty would lead to a surge in illegal immigration, and questioned the veracity of one lawmaker who played a clip of Mr. Obama’s words from last week, when the president said he’d taken “action to change the law” on immigration.
“Listen, I’ve been a lawyer 30 years. Somebody plays me an eight-word excerpt from a broader speech, I know to be suspicious,” Mr. Johnson told Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who played the short clip from Mr. Obama’s speech in Chicago last week.
Mr. Johnson also questioned Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael T. McCaul’s list of more than 20 prior occasions when the president had said he didn’t have unilateral powers — claims that Mr. Obama flouted when he issued his amnesty last month, fact-checkers have concluded.
“I don’t envy your position right now,” Mr. McCaul told Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Obama defied warnings from Republicans and some Democrats in announcing his claim of unilateral powers to grant legal status and work permits to nearly 5 million illegal immigrants.
Mr. Johnson, though, said he’s comfortable with the legal justification for what Mr. Obama did, and said it will make it easier for his agents to enforce immigration laws now that they won’t have to worry about going after most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
“We want people to be accountable, to come out of the shadows, to get on the books and pay taxes for the three-year period of deferred action,” he said.
Still, some cracks showed during a rocky two-hour hearing Tuesday.
Mr. Johnson acknowledged he is concerned about fraudulent applications for the amnesty, admitted his department still doesn’t have a firm way to measure border security and revealed that two self-identified members of terrorist groups have been released into the U.S. by order of an immigration judge.
The secretary said he would have preferred those two men be kept in custody but didn’t have a choice after the judge ruled. He said they have since fled to Canada, where they are requesting asylum, though his agents have lost track of them.
“I’m not sure of their exact whereabouts,” Mr. Johnson said.
Two other men captured at the same time are still in custody in the U.S., though Mr. Johnson didn’t provide any more details. The Washington Times reported earlier this year that the four men took advantage of a smuggling network to fly from Istanbul through Paris to Mexico City, where they were taken to the U.S. border and crossed illegally.
The men claimed to be part of a Marxist U.S.-designated terrorist group called the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front, known by the acronym DHKP/C. But Mr. Johnson said they may actually have been part of a different U.S.-designated terrorist group, the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK.
Homeland Security officials had thought the men dangerous enough to place on terrorist watch lists.
Verifying immigrants’ identity will be a challenge for Mr. Obama’s new policy, Mr. Johnson told the committee Tuesday.
He said he wants to learn the lessons from Mr. Obama’s previous deportation amnesty for so-called “dreamers,” which granted tentative status and work permits to 610,000 illegal immigrants over the last two years.
And he vowed to be stiffer on illegal border crossers, saying his department has learned lessons from its failure to prevent this summer’s surge of illegal immigrant children and families, which saw tens of thousands cross the Texas border without fear of being quickly deported.
Mr. McCaul at one point questioned whether Mr. Johnson agreed with Mr. Obama, who in 2010 had said taking unilateral action to halt deportations would lead to a bigger surge of illegal immigrants.
“No,” the secretary replied. “In fact, we prioritize recent illegal migrants [for deportation]. We prioritize those who came here illegally after January 1, 2014, and I intend to highlight that fact wherever I go.”
Later, Mr. Johnson had his testy exchange with Mr. Chaffetz, who played the clip of Mr. Obama saying he’d changed the law.
The exchange left Republicans steaming.
“It’s a mess. They don’t have their stories straight,” Mr. Chaffetz said after the hearing. “They give conflicting reports. They don’t seem to be on the same page, and yet the criminal element seems to be skating free.”
At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest tried to clarify Mr. Obama’s gaffe over claiming to have changed the laws, saying the president was trying to speak to the level of his audience in Chicago.
“I think he was speaking colloquially,” Mr. Earnest said.
He went on to say that while the president didn’t change the law, his actions did change the way the law affects millions of people. “I think that’s what the president was alluding to,” Mr. Earnest said.
• S.A. Miller and Dave Boyer contributed to this article.