WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's review of the nation's deportation policies may result in changes to a contentious program that hands over people booked for local crimes to federal immigration authorities.
But such steps are unlikely to satisfy advocates demanding dramatic action to help millions of people living in the U.S. illegally.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, offering his first public hints at the outcome of the review he's conducting at Obama's behest, said Thursday that the so-called Secure Communities program needs a "fresh start." He suggested it might be revamped to focus on people who actually have been convicted of crimes, not just those arrested or booked.
"In my judgment, Secure Communities should be an efficient way to work with state and local law enforcement to reach the removal priorities that we have, those who are convicted of something," Johnson said on PBS' "NewsHour."
"The program has become very controversial. And I told a group of sheriffs and chiefs that I met with a couple days ago that I thought we needed a fresh start."
The program allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to run fingerprints of anyone booked for a local or state crime through a federal database for immigration violations. If there's a match, ICE can ask local police and sheriffs to detain the person, and then decide whether to deport them.
The program, which was started in 2008 under the Bush administration but has been expanded under Obama, has led to complaints that people are being deported for immigration violations without being convicted of any crime, or with only minor offenses. Police and sheriff's officials also complain people are afraid to interact with law enforcement and report crimes because they worry they'll be deported.
States including California and local governments in Oregon and elsewhere have begun refusing to honor all detention requests, something that's increased in the wake of recent court rulings raising questions about the program.
Many advocates, who have been holding hunger strikes and rallies to protest record-high deportations on Obama's watch, want Secure Communities eliminated entirely.
"We're skeptical that this is going to be the meaningful change that the community is asking for," said Kamal Essaheb, an attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. "We don't want any changes around the edges. This is a program that's poisoned trust between police and immigrant communities."
More than 150 civil and immigrant rights groups signed a letter to Johnson Friday urging him to end the use of immigrant detentions under Secure Communities.
Changes to Secure Communities also would fall far short of the sweeping action advocates are pushing to expand a 2-year-old program that's allowed hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought illegally to the country as youths to stay and work here legally. Johnson said he was still reviewing that possibility, but he sounded a note of caution.
"I would say that we have to be careful not to pre-empt Congress in certain areas," Johnson said.
The Obama administration's focus on executive action has come with immigration legislation stuck in the GOP-led House 11 months after Senate passage of a far-reaching bill that included billions of dollars more for border security, new visa programs and a path to citizenship for many of the 11.5 million people now living illegally in the U.S.
Republicans have warned that any executive action by Obama would destroy whatever chance remains to get their cooperation on immigration. Some see a narrow window for the House to act in the next couple of months, ahead of Congress' August recess and the November midterm elections.
And some Republicans — who have criticized Secure Communities for deporting too few people, not too many — warn that Obama should not be taking steps to relax enforcement.
"We've witnessed President Obama and administration officials abuse their executive power to systematically dismantle the mechanisms to enforce our immigration laws that Congress has created. But still, the administration would like to go further," House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said in a statement. "The administration's refusal to enforce existing laws has created a trust deficit with the American people and is effectively undermining Congress' work to reform our immigration laws."