DHS Chief Says ‘We Could Do a Better Job’ With Deportations, But Review Drags On

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President Obama wants to delay the conclusion of a review of deportation policies until the end of the summer. But one of his top officials is already looking at areas that need improvement.

At a committee hearing in the House of Representatives on Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the federal government should refine its guidelines for who should be a priority for deportation.

“As I’ve looked at this guidance myself, which covers a multiyear period, I see a certain lack of clarity in the prioritization and the guidance and I think we could do a better job there,” Johnson said.

Earlier this year, President Obama asked Johnson, the lead official overseeing immigration enforcement, to reevaluate the government’s deportation policies. The objective, according to a White House statement, was to see how immigration enforcement could be handled “more humanely.”

Obama put the brakes on the review this week, however, saying that he wanted to give Congress more time to pass immigration reform.

The president’s intentions may not be totally sincere. Most experts see little chance of passing major bipartisan legislation with a midterm election right around the corner.

If anything, the delay could mean a pitched battle over immigration right before primaries, which could benefit Democrats. The issue is far more divisive within the Republican Party and some prominent Republicans, like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), have fluttered to the right on immigration as elections approach. Democrats have a fairly unified stance in favor of offering undocumented immigrants the chance to earn citizenship.

Meanwhile, Obama’s delay has angered immigrant-rights activists, because it means that another 97,000 people could potentially be deported before his administration concludes its policy review. That number is based on the rate of deportations in the 2013 fiscal year.

At the hearing on Thursday, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), perhaps the most outspoken immigration hawk in the Republican caucus, pressed Johnson to share details about what moves the Obama administration might take to change deportation policy, and remove “the sword of Damocles that’s hanging over our head.”

“I’m not in a position to answer it right now and my review is not complete,” Johnson told King. “So if I gave you the answer, it would be a premature answer.”

The takeaway: Immigration officials could certainly use more clarity on who should be a priority for deportation, but the upcoming election makes a delay advantageous to Democrats.

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