Official offers first clues of Obama executive actions on immigration

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is offering the first clues of steps the administration could take on immigration through executive action.

Johnson in a Thursday night interview with PBS said that any immigration reform done by the executive branch must be careful "not to pre-empt Congress." But he also made it clear the administration is interested in changing a controversial program used in deportations that has been criticized by police.

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Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has repeatedly said distrust of President Obama is the reason immigration reform legislation cannot move through the House. Republicans are wary of Obama making any changes to immigration law without Congress. 

But the White House is also under pressure from immigration supporters to take action on deportations. Such action could also excite parts of the Democratic base ahead of the midterm elections.

Immigration advocates and some Democrats have pressed the administration to use its power to slow the deportation rate, similar to a move made in 2012 to deprioritize deportations of children brought to the country illegally. 

President Obama ordered a review of immigration policies in March. Johnson said the department must stay within the confines of what the executive branch can do without lawmakers' help. 

"They are the lawmakers. Whatever we do in the executive branch, we have to do within the confines of existing law. So we have a fair amount of discretion when it comes to how we prioritize our enforcement activities," he said.

The Homeland Security secretary, refering to the Secure Communities fingerprint program, told PBS that "it will and it should" be reformed in the near term. 

"The program has become very controversial," Johnson said on PBS. "And I told a group of sheriffs and chiefs that I met with a couple days ago that I thought we needed a fresh start. And this is a conversation I have been having with a number of mayors and governors."

The program requires local police to share the fingerprints of people arrested so they can be checked against the immigration database for possible deportation. The program has received criticism from all sides, with some cities saying they might refuse to hold detainees who are found to be illegal immigrants for possible deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Obama and Johnson met with a group of law enforcement officials earlier this week and signaled that they could issue a new directive by the end of the month. 

"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," Johnson said. 

In March, Obama directed the DHS to review the administration's enforcement of deportation laws to see if they could be made more humane.

— This story was updated at 9:04 a.m.