Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson insisted Tuesday that his department can't force sanctuary cities to comply with federal requests to detain illegal immigrants, and took a beating for those comments in the House Judiciary Committee.
Johnson's testimony came less than two weeks after an immigrant allegedly shot and killed 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle, which has prompted members of both parties to say cities shouldn't be allowed to ignore federal requests to detain illegals. But Johnson told committee members that courts have ruled that the federal government can't force jurisdictions to play along.
"The courts were saying that state and local law enforcement does not have the authority under the due process clause of the Constitution to hold people until we could come and get them," he said. "Last time I looked, through federal legislation, you cannot rewrite the due process clause of the federal Constitution, so that is a problem."
"I do not believe that mandating through federal legislation conduct of sheriffs and police chiefs is the way to go," Johnson continued. "I think it will be hugely controversial; I think it will have problems with the Constitution. I want to see us work cooperatively with state and local law enforcement and I believe they are poised to do that."
His plan to hope for better cooperation was not met kindly from members of the committee.
"Although DHS previously deemed fugitive aliens to be a priority for removal, under Secretary Johnson's guidelines, these aliens are no longer a priority if they were issued a removal order before Jan. 1, 2014," Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., charged in his opening statement. "This means that DHS is disregarding removal orders that have already been issued, and wasting the millions of taxpayer dollars spent to obtain the orders."
"On immigration, respectfully, it is a fiction to say we are not enforcing the law," Johnson replied to Goodlatte. "Apprehensions are down considerably from where they were a year ago."
Goodlatte said that approximately 180,000 convicted criminals who are in removal proceedings are currently living in the U.S., while another 170,000 or so convicted aliens ordered deported are also living freely. Those statistics were given to his committee by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which also said more than 1,400 undocumented immigrants have committed crimes while awaiting deportation.
Francisco Sanchez is the convicted felon who allegedly murdered Steinle. Although ICE issued a deportation order for Sanchez prior to Steinle's death, the Golden Gate City "simply ignored and proceeded to release him," Goodlatte said. "Unfortunately, DHS openly advertises that jurisdictions can ignore its detainers."
"There are now more than 200 jurisdictions, including San Francisco, which refused to honor ICE detainers," he said. "Politely asking for cooperation from sanctuary cities is a fool's errand. The clear answer to this problem is for DHS to mandate compliance with detainers and for this administration to defend the mandatory nature of detainers in federal court."
While Johnson and the judiciary panel sparred, the Appropriations Committee held a separate hearing and approved an amendment to a DHS spending bill that would bar sanctuary cities from receiving Homeland Security Department funds.
It also denied the administration's full request of $122 million for ICE's program that provides supervision of illegal immigrants to ensure they appear for the immigration court hearings.
If that program were fully funded, it could accommodate an "estimated 53,000 individuals per day and would help reduce the number of in absentia removal orders, enabling ICE to more easily track and remove those ordered removed," Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan said in a letter to the committee dated Tuesday.