WASHINGTON - Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who's conducting a politically charged review of the nation's deportation policy, said Thursday he's looking at making changes to a much-criticized program that runs people booked for local crimes through a federal immigration database.
Johnson said the "Secure Communities" program has "become very controversial" and needs "a fresh start."
The program allows U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to ask local police and sheriffs to detain people who've been booked and whose fingerprints match up in a federal database for immigration violations. ICE can then decide whether to deport them.
That's led to complaints that people are being deported for immigration violations even without being convicted of any crime, or with only minor offences. Police and sheriff's officials also complain people are afraid to interact with law enforcement because they worry they'll be deported. In the wake of recent court rulings casting doubt on the program, local governments have increasingly announced plans to refuse to honour the detention requests.
Johnson offered little detail in comments on PBS' "NewsHour," but he indicated he might aim to revamp the program to focus on people who've actually been convicted, 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," he said.
Changes to the Secure Communities program or other enforcement policies would answer some demands from immigrant advocates who've been pressuring President Barack Obama to take steps to curb record-high deportations on his watch. But many advocates have pushed for Secure Communities to be eliminated altogether, and such steps also would fall short of the sweeping action advocates are pushing for to allow some of the 11.5 million people in the country illegally to stay.
"Secure Communities has caused irreparable damage to immigrant communities, and although any attempt to prevent families from being unnecessarily ripped apart is welcome, a step like this is simply too little, too late," said Kamal Essaheb, an attorney at the National Immigration Law Center.
Obama two years ago extended work permits and protection from deportation to some immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Johnson said he was still reviewing the possibility of expanding the program, but he sounded notes of caution, as Obama has.
"I would say that we have to be careful not to pre-empt Congress in certain areas," Johnson said. "They are the lawmakers. Whatever we do in the executive branch, we have to do within the confines of existing law."
The deportation review comes with sweeping immigration legislation stuck in the GOP-led House 11 months after Senate passage.