Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said it was a “tragic” mistake for his department to grant a temporary amnesty to an illegal immigrant who has since been accused of four murders, but acknowledged Tuesday that more than 280 other illegal immigrants also have had their amnesties rescinded because of criminal or gang-related behavior.
Facing a grilling before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Johnson defended President Obama’s 2012 amnesty for so-called Dreamers, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, but said they have made mistakes and are trying to correct them as his department prepares for the even bigger amnesty Mr. Obama announced in November.
Key members of the Senate were unconvinced and moved Tuesday to take away any discretion. Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, and two senators from North Carolina introduced a bill that would prohibit anyone with gang ties from getting amnesty or other immigration benefits.
“It’s unfortunate that an act of Congress is required to explicitly prevent the federal government from providing safe haven to criminal gang members, but it’s clear that the current policies and practices are not working,” Mr. Grassley said. “Just today, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said known membership in a criminal gang ‘should constitute as a disqualifier from DACA,’ yet an agency that he oversees has granted DACA to known criminals or criminal gang members at least 282 times.”
North Carolina authorities have accused Emmanuel Jesus Rangel of four counts of murder, including that of a former contestant on “America’s Next Top Model” program. Mr. Rangel was slated for deportation after facing criminal charges but was released from custody and granted amnesty in 2013 under the DACA policy — despite having known gang ties.
After prodding by Mr. Grassley, Homeland Security officials admitted they made a mistake and rescinded his amnesty — a month after the killings.
“This case is a tragic case and he should not have received DACA,” Mr. Johnson said.
The secretary said the bungle came at the background check unit that is supposed to look into potential criminal ties for all amnesty applicants. That suggests the unit missed Mr. Rangel’s gang history, even though it was noted in the database that they were supposed to be using.
Known gang ties are supposed to be a complete disqualification for DACA. Even suspected gang ties are supposed to raise the case to heightened scrutiny.
Mr. Johnson acknowledged at Tuesday’s hearing that 282 people have had to be kicked out of the amnesty program because of criminal convictions or gang ties that were later discovered. That was out of a population of more than 600,000 who were approved.
The Homeland Security Department didn’t respond to follow-up questions from The Washington Times about the review that identified the 282 people who had their amnesties revoked.
DACA was designed to give short-term legal status and work permits to Dreamers, or young adult illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and who are viewed as the most sympathetic cases in the debate.
As many as 5 million more illegal immigrants would be eligible under Mr. Obama’s expanded amnesty, announced last year, that would add more people to DACA and create a program for illegal immigrant parents.
That amnesty has been halted by a federal judge in Texas, and the case is being appealed. The appeals court, in oral argument this month, paid particular attention to whether the background checks being conducted for the amnesty were thorough or not, and the revelations about Mr. Rangel could hurt Mr. Obama’s case.
Mr. Johnson insisted that he is determined to deport immigrants who are national security risks, gang members and criminals, placing them as his highest priority for removal from the country.
Deportations, though, are down across the board, including among criminals. Mr. Johnson said that is partly because fewer illegal immigrants are being caught on the border — a signal, he said, that illegal immigration is dropping. But he also said many states and localities are refusing to cooperate with federal authorities trying to deport convicts.
Mr. Johnson faced tough questions from both sides of the aisle. While Republicans argued that his enforcement efforts were lax, Democrats accused him of being too tough on illegal immigrant women and children from Central America who surged across the border.
Democrats urged Mr. Johnson not to detain families, calling it inhumane.
Federal judges also are looking at the cases and could order Mr. Johnson to release illegal immigrants who make claims of asylum.
Mr. Johnson said he is studying what the courts are doing but detaining families helped cut last year’s surge. He also said he has visited family detention centers and satisfied himself “that what we’re doing is the appropriate course.”
“I believe that our expanded detention capability in the face of last year’s situation was the right thing to do and I believe that it had an influence on our overall efforts. And so I think that overall we need to maintain this capability,” he said.