Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson admitted Tuesday that the administration goofed in releasing an illegal immigrant to sanctuary city San Francisco ahead of a shocking murder earlier this month, but said there’s little the government can do to pressure sanctuary communities to change their minds.
Facing lawmakers for the first time since the slaying of Kathryn Steinle, a 32-year-old killed while out walking with her father, Mr. Johnson said he’s made personal appeals to San Francisco to rethink its refusal to let police cooperate with federal immigration agents, and will try again in the wake of the killing.
But he declined to criticize sanctuary cities themselves, and told Congress not to try to pass laws forcing cooperation, saying it could conflict with the Constitution, and it won’t win over the hearts of reluctant communities.
“My hope is that jurisdictions like San Francisco — San Francisco County — will cooperate with our new program,” he told the House Judiciary Committee. “I’m making the rounds with a lot of jurisdictions. My deputy secretary and I and other leaders in DHS have been very, very active for the purpose of promoting public safety to get jurisdictions to cooperate with us on this.”
He said several dozen jurisdictions who had previously refused to cooperate have already signed up or signaled interest in working with the new Priority Enforcement Program.
Republicans doubted that asking nicely would work with the five cities and counties that have turned Mr. Johnson down already, and they wondered why he and President Obama didn’t want to get tougher on the recalcitrant ones.
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“How in the hell can a city tell you ‘No’?” demanded Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican. “And when a young woman is shot walking with her father, with somebody with this resume, either you got to do something, we got to do something, or maybe we can do it together.”
Steinle’s death has refocused the immigration debate, which, for the last few years, had been won by immigrant rights advocates arguing for more lenient treatment for illegal immigrants, symbolized by the most sympathetic category of the Dreamers, young adult illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
Now, Steinle’s slaying — and the suspect, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, deported five times before and out on the streets after San Francisco refused to hold him for pickup by immigration agents — has put attention on victims of illegal immigration.
Lopez-Sanchez had just completed a federal prison sentence for one of his many illegal entries into the U.S., and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents had asked the Bureau of Prisons to hold him for them to come pick up.
Instead, the bureau shipped him to San Francisco, which wanted him on a decades-old drug warrant. But San Francisco canceled that charge and, despite another request from ICE that Lopez-Sanchez be held for pickup, released him per its sanctuary policy.
Mr. Johnson said his department and the Bureau of Prisons should be talking these issues out better, and said some sort of discretion is probably needed so the bureau would have prioritized the homeland security claim over San Francisco’s.
The Bureau of Prisons didn’t respond to messages seeking comment on how it handled the case.
Mr. Johnson said he hasn’t yet contacted Steinle’s family, and didn’t know if anyone else in the administration had. That drew criticism from Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican who said administration officials managed to reach out to families of those involved in high-profile encounters with the police in recent months, and said it would be good to make similar overtures in this instance.
“Perhaps they need to do that. I would strongly recommend that,” he said.
Sanctuary cities have bedeviled the Obama administration for years.
Even as it sued Arizona, arguing it didn’t want a patchwork of immigration laws, the administration allowed cities and counties to refuse to cooperate.
In 2012, John Morton, then-director of ICE, told Congress he was pushing within the administration to punish sanctuary cities, but signaled the Justice Department was blocking that.
Mr. Morton at the time said he’d fight to cut off funding for sanctuary cities.
But that’s no longer Homeland Security’s position. New ICE Director Sarah R. Saldana had told Congress earlier this year she would welcome a law forcing communities to cooperate, but a day later retracted that statement after receiving a talking-to from Mr. Johnson.
Beyond the sanctuary city issue, Mr. Johnson said border security is improving. Border Patrol agents are on pace to apprehend fewer than 400,000 illegal immigrants this year, which could be the lowest total since the 1970s. The agency says that means fewer people are even attempting to cross in the first place.
The interior of the country presents a trickier picture.
Homeland Security has tried to focus on illegal immigrants with serious criminal histories, all but ignoring rank-and-file illegal immigrants. That causes deportations to plummet and detention beds to go unused.
Mr. Johnson said they are approaching 31,000 beds being used on an average day — more than the 27,000 being held at the beginning of the year but still short of the 34,000 beds that Congress has mandated the department keep.
Even as it leaves beds unused, the department continues to release immigrants with serious criminal records who go on to commit more crimes.
More than 1,000 criminal aliens released into the community while awaiting deportation in 2014 were convicted of still more crimes after their release, including kidnapping, sexual assault against a child and vehicular homicide, according to statistics released Tuesday by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte.