WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's latest attempt to pressure House Republicans to act on immigration legislation will backfire and make action harder, a House chairman said Thursday.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., criticized Obama's move this week to delay the results of a review of the nation's deportations policy until late summer. White House officials said they wanted to allow House Republicans opportunity to act before Congress' August recess and November midterm elections.
If they don't, Obama is expected to take steps on his own to curb deportations, which have reached record highs on his watch.
"When the president says he's going to set a time limit and then consider taking actions himself ... that makes doing immigration reform harder not easier," Goodlatte said during an oversight hearing with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
Legislation is stalled in the House 11 months after the Senate passed a sweeping bill dealing with border security, workplace enforcement and eventual citizenship for millions. Action is looking increasingly unlikely even on narrow measures, such as one offering citizenship to immigrants here illegally to serve in the military.
The House did vote on one immigration-related measure Thursday. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, an immigration hardliner, offered an amendment to an annual spending bill aimed at encouraging the Justice Department to spend $5 million investigating the release of convicted criminal immigrants.
The measure passed 218-193. Immigration advocates complained that the House should not be voting on punitive measures by King when votes on overhauling the immigration system haven't gone forward.
Johnson was in the midst of the administration's review of the government's deportation policies when the White House announced the delay.
Johnson has given little indication about what he will recommend. He said Thursday, as he's indicated in the past, that a program to identify immigrants in the country illegally who are booked into local jails should get a "fresh start."
But he told lawmakers the program known as "Secure Communities," which uses fingerprints submitted to the FBI to identify potentially deportable immigrants, should not be eliminated.
"I don't believe we should scrap Secure Communities," Johnson said. "I believe, given the reality of where we are with this program in this country, that we need a fresh start ... I think the goal of the program is a very worthy one that needs to continue."
The program has drawn complaints from local law enforcement, and an increasing number of counties, cities and states are opting not to participate in the wake of recent court decisions raising questions about the program. Goodlatte called the program "one of the most efficient mechanisms for removing dangerous aliens from the United States."
Johnson also confirmed Thursday that his review is looking at refocusing priorities for who is deported. Priorities should include people who are threats to national security, public safety and border security, he said. Advocates are pushing for broad action to shield large groups of people from deportation.
The secretary faced strong criticism from Republicans on both the review and the administration's use of discretion enforcing immigration laws.
Federal data published this month showed that the Homeland Security Department released 36,007 convicted criminal immigrants last year who are facing deportation, including those accounting for 193 homicide and 426 sexual assault convictions. The immigrants nearly all still face deportation and are required to check in with immigration authorities while their deportation cases are pending.
Goodlatte said Johnson isn't responsible for decisions he described as "dangerous and irresponsible" made before Johnson was hired as Homeland Security secretary in December. But Goodlatte said Americans have lost confidence in the administration's enforcement of immigration laws. Johnson said he has asked for a "deeper understanding" of why the department released the immigrants, and he pledged to continue to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ensure public safety.
Johnson said many of the releases were directed by an immigration judge or were prompted by other legal requirements.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.
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