By Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Republican lawmakers slammed the Obama administration on Tuesday as failing to enforce immigration laws and allowing dangerous criminals to walk free, using the killing of a San Francisco woman to underscore their allegations.
Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, criticized enforcement priorities issued by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson of in November.
He cited new Immigration and Customs Enforcement data that reflects the release of nearly 350,000 convicted immigrants who have been ordered removed or are awaiting proceedings. Of 30,500 aliens with criminal convictions released last year, 1,423 have been convicted of new crimes, he said.
Obama administration policies "have turned the flight from enforcement into a headlong rush," Goodlatte said at a hearing.
Johnson defended his department's performance.
"It is a fiction to say we are not enforcing the law," he told the panel.
Republican lawmakers criticized the federal government's failure to force local law enforcement to hand over illegal immigrants who fall into their custody.
They cited the release by the San Francisco sheriff of Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a five-time deported Mexican immigrant, despite a request from federal officials to hold him. Lopez-Sanchez has been charged with murder in the July 1 shooting of a woman at a San Francisco tourist site.
"This effectively releases criminal aliens onto the street with all too tragic results," Goodlatte said.
The case attracted national attention after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump criticized San Francisco for local laws limiting assistance to federal immigration authorities aiming to deport individuals arrested for crimes.
The Obama administration has deported record numbers of illegal immigrants, angering Hispanic groups who have dubbed President Barack Obama "deporter in chief."
Johnson said enforcement efforts had to be sharpened to focus on criminals and threats to public safety and that his department was working to "fix" relationships with local law enforcement.
Republican Steve Chabot asked if the Obama administration has reached out to the family of San Francisco shooting victim Kathryn Steinle, 32. Johnson said he did not know.
Representative John Conyers, the senior Democrat on the committee, warned against an inappropriate response to the killing.
"Our hearts go out to her family," he said. "But as we think about the proper way to respond to the situation, we must make sure we do not adopt policies that would diminish public safety and undermine our commitment to the Constitution and civil liberties."
(Editing by Andrew Hay)