WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's new homeland security secretary is offering his first public hints at executive action the administration might take on immigration, suggesting changes to a much-criticized program that runs the names of people booked for local crimes through a federal immigration database.
But advocates who have pushed Obama for bold action with immigration legislation stalled in Congress wasted no time in declaring that such steps wouldn't go far enough.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, tasked by Obama with reviewing the nation's deportation policy to see whether it can be made more humane, said Thursday that the so-called Secure Communities program needs "a fresh start."
The program allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to ask local police and sheriffs to detain people who have 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 without being convicted of any crime, or with only minor offenses. Police and sheriff's officials also complain people are afraid to interact with law enforcement because they worry they'll be deported. Following recent court rulings that raised questions about the program, local governments increasingly have announced plans to refuse to honor the detention requests.
In comments Thursday on PBS' "NewsHour" program, Johnson indicated he might aim to revamp the program to focus on people who actually have 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 in the Secure Communities program or other enforcement policies would answer some demands from immigrant advocates who have been pressuring 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.
Johnson said he still was reviewing the possibility of expanding an Obama program granting work permits and protection from deportation to some immigrants brought here illegally as children -- known loosely as "Dreamers" for the DREAM Act legislative proposal. But Johnson sounded a note of caution.
"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."
Advocates contend Obama has more authority to act on his own than the administration acknowledges.
"The goal posts for Secretary Johnson are clear. He has to end the so-called Secure Communities program as we know it, and he needs to protect more low priority immigrants and expand on what President Obama did in 2012 when he boldly protected Dreamers," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an advocacy group. "Anything less will be viewed as merely tinkering."
Joanne Lin, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said, "Secure communities cannot be successfully rebooted" and must end.
Johnson's deportation policy review comes with immigration legislation stuck in the GOP-led House 11 months after Senate passage of a far-reaching bill that included billions of dollars more for border security, new visa programs and a path to citizenship for many now here illegally.
Republicans have warned that any executive action by Obama would destroy whatever chance remains to get their cooperation on immigration. Some see a narrow window for the House to act in the next couple of months, ahead of Congress' August recess and the November midterm elections.
And some Republicans warn that Obama should not be taking steps to relax enforcement.
"We must be strengthening -- not weakening -- the enforcement of our nation's immigration laws," said Stephen Miller, spokesman for Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.