A House subcommittee on Wednesday authorized a subpoena against the Homeland Security Department for information about illegal immigrants who have been identified but not deported.
The authorization cleared the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration policy and enforcement by a 7-4, party line vote. Democrats voted against the measure, saying it was premature to issue a subpoena because Homeland Security, which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is cooperating with the committee.
House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, says the subpoena authorization is necessary because the Obama administration hasn't responded quickly enough to his request, which was made in August. He had set a Monday deadline that the department failed to meet.
"The administration is obviously not acting in good faith," Smith said. "They're on the verge of obstructing the legitimate work of Congress."
Nelson Peacock, an assistant secretary for Homeland Security, said in a letter to Smith Wednesday that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is working expeditiously to turn over the information the committee has requested but that it will take significant analysis.
"As we have explained, ICE does not track the circumstances of cases where no action is taken," Peacock wrote. But he said the agency is committed to satisfying the committee's request and is working through its records to get as specific a response as possible.
In August, Smith formally requested information from the Obama administration about its so-called Secure Communities program. Under the program, names and fingerprints of people arrested are scanned through a federal immigration database to check their legal status to be in the U.S.
Smith has said he wants the information so he can determine what crimes were committed by as many as 300,000 illegal immigrants DHS has chosen not to detain. The Obama administration recently said it would prioritize deportations by putting illegal immigrants with criminal records first. Illegal immigrants who are otherwise law-abiding would be given a chance to apply for legal status.
Smith has been a harsh critic of the administration's approach.
Wednesday's hearing divided sharply on partisan lines. Democrats said Republicans were eager to try and embarrass the Obama administration and were rushing to issue a subpoena.
"We have every reason to believe that the administration is working diligently," on the request, said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.
Conyers said Democratic and Republican members of the committee's staff had spoken to Homeland Security officials two hours before the hearing and the department was cooperating. He cited the request's breadth as a hold-up.
This is the first authorization for a subpoena issued by the House Judiciary Committee since Republicans took control of the House early this year.
Republicans said issues involved with Smith's information request made it critical to move forward with the subpoena.
"This will help the committee uncover how many of these aliens committed additional crimes after ICE declined to detain them," said Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif. "What price do the American people pay for ICE's current policy?"