WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said he would review the release last year of tens of thousands of immigrants with criminal records after lawmakers grilled him on deportation issues on Thursday.
House of Representatives Republicans highlighted their differences with Democrats at a Judiciary Committee hearing days after President Barack Obama delayed a deportation review to give Congress more time to agree on immigration reform.
Republican lawmakers cited immigration figures showing more than 36,000 immigrants with criminal convictions, including 193 homicides and 426 sexual assaults, left custody last year.
Also on Thursday, the full House narrowly passed a measure directing the Department of Justice to investigate Department of Homeland Security decisions leading to the freeing of immigrants who could be deported because of criminal activity.
The House voted 218-193 on the amendment to a bill funding the Justice Department next year.
Johnson said the immigrants were released after review by a judge or immigration officer but promised to investigate.
“I’ve looked at the same list you’ve seen and I’m seeing some pretty serious criminal convictions on that list, including homicide, so I want a deeper understanding of this issue myself,” Johnson said.
He told the Judiciary Committee he did not plan to end a program in which police share fingerprints of criminals with federal authorities to identify people in the country illegally. The Secure Communities program has been criticized by immigration advocates.
“I don’t believe we should scrap Secure Communities,” Johnson said. He said he thinks the program needed a “fresh start” to work more effectively.
Obama asked Johnson in March to find ways to make deportation enforcement more humane, responding to increasing pressure from pro-immigration activists to a curb a record-high deportation rate.
Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, criticized Obama, saying putting a time limit on Congress made immigration reform harder, not easier.
Democrat Luis Gutierrez lambasted his Republican colleagues, saying the president said “no” to immigration reform advocates “because he wants to say ‘yes’ to you, because he wants to reach agreement with you.”
He ridiculed them for focusing on criminals when the entire immigration system was broken.
“You think we like criminals? I don’t want them here either,” Gutierrez said.
Republican Lamar Smith likened the 36,000 releases to “the largest prison break in U.S. history.”
Homeland Security’s review of deportation policies was expected to include allowing some illegal immigrants who have not committed serious crimes to remain in the country.
While Republicans accused immigration authorities of sending too few undocumented immigrants home, Democrats demanded to know why hundreds of thousands were deported without due process.
Representative Judy Chu of California said more than 70 percent of all people that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported last year bypassed immigration courts. Zoe Lofgren, another California Democrat, said more than half of deportations last year were for immigration violations.
Editing by Lisa Shumaker