FILE - In this March 18, 2014, file photo, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson speaks during a news conference in Washington. Johnson, who's conducting a politically charged review of the nation's deportation policy, said Thursday, May 15 he's looking at making changes to a much-criticized program that runs people booked for local crimes through a federal immigration database.(AP Photo/ Evan Vucci, File)
WASHINGTON (AP) – The Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Jeh Johnson is asking for an internal review of the Obama administration's release of tens of thousands of immigrants in the country illegally who were convicted of crimes and facing deportation. He's telling lawmakers he wants a deeper understanding of the issue.
Federal data published this month showed that the DHA 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.
News of the releases, which came amid an ongoing review of the Obama administration's deportation policies, incensed Republican lawmakers who contend that President Barack Obama has not properly enforced immigration laws. The House Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said the releases "needlessly endanger Americans' lives."
In testimony sent to Congress ahead of a hearing by the committee Thursday, Johnson said he was "committed to enforcing our immigration laws in a manner that best promotes and ensures national security, public safety and border security." He said he has asked for a "deeper understanding" of the releases, 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. His written testimony did not provide additional details.
The White House said this week it asked Johnson to delay completing his review of deportation policies until the end of the summer. It was a move aimed at salvaging hope for Congress to act on an immigration bill before November's midterm elections.
It's an election-year gambit with the potential to backfire: By asking for patience yet again from frustrated immigration activists, Obama is driving up expectations about actions he'll take if the fight in Congress ultimately fails.
"It's an audacious strategy," Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said. "But it has some downsides to it too."
White House officials said the delay is intended to give the GOP as much breathing room as possible to maneuver now that most GOP primaries are over, freeing incumbent Republicans from concerns about challenges from conservatives who oppose an immigration overhaul.
Yet Obama's allies also hope that by holding off on controversial steps to ease deportations, Democrats can keep the focus squarely on the failure of Republicans and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to bring immigration to a vote.
"Giving the Republicans space takes away their final excuse," said Jim Wallis, president of Christian social justice group Sojourners. "It's all now focused on John Boehner."
But Republicans dismissed the notion that Obama's move makes it easier for Republicans to act on immigration, noting that Obama has only delayed — not removed — the threat that he'll go over lawmakers' heads if they don't act by August.
"It's completely inappropriate for the president to threaten Congress that he will unconstitutionally act on his own if Congress doesn't produce a bill to his political liking within his own made-up timeframe," House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said.
Laying the blame squarely at Republicans' feet could motivate dispirited Latino voters, who tend to favor Democrats, in a midterm election in which Obama has warned repeatedly that the biggest hazard for his party is that Democrats won't show up to vote. At the same time, some immigration groups and Democrats — including Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. — have lost patience and already are balking at Obama's delay.
Most Americans — 55 percent — favor providing a legal way for those in the U.S. illegally to become citizens, according to a May AP-GfK poll, including 73 percent of Democrats.