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By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Under pressure from lawmakers, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Thursday he was reviewing the release from jail of thousands of immigrants in the country illegally who were convicted of crimes and faced deportation.

The Department of Homeland Security last year released 36,007 such immigrants who had been convicted of crimes, according to federal data. Among those, 193 had homicide convictions and 426 had sexual assault convictions. Nearly all of those released still face deportation and are required to check in with authorities as a condition of their release.

Johnson told members of the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday that he asked for a “deeper understanding” of the releases. In many cases, Johnson said, the individuals were released under an order from an immigration judge that included some type of supervision and monitoring.

“I’ve seen some pretty serious criminal convictions on that list, including homicide,” Johnson said. “I want to ensure we are doing everything we should be doing.”

The chairman of the committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., criticized the administration’s policies, saying the releases “needlessly endanger Americans’ lives.”

Since 2011, the Obama administration has tried to focus immigration agents on deporting recent border crossers, repeat immigration violators and people who pose a threat to public safety. In March, Obama asked Johnson to review the department’s deportation policies to see if expulsions can be done in a more “humane” way.

This week, the White House asked Johnson to delay announcing the results of that review until August to avoid angering House Republicans who are considering a series of bills on immigration reform. Johnson told lawmakers on Thursday that he saw a need to clarify instructions given to immigration officers about which individuals should take priority for deportation.

“Whatever we do to revise our enforcement policies, however, is no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform passed by Congress,” Johnson said.

Johnson added that the estimated 11.4 million people living in this country illegally are “not going away.”

“As a matter of homeland security, we should encourage these people to come out of the shadows of American society, pay taxes and fines, be held accountable, and be given the opportunity to get on a path to citizenship like others,” he said.

Photo: ndlon via Flickr

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