Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson indicated that the Obama administration might narrow the number of illegal immigrants subject to deportation by making changes to a federal program that is unpopular with some interest groups in the Democratic base.

DHS Hints at Action on Curbing Deportations, But White House Mum

The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), the National People’s Action and the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) hold a rally calling for the end of deportations of illegal immigrants in front of the White House in Washington,DC on April 28, 2014. The US Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform last June, but the issue is languishing this year, with skittish Republicans reluctant to jeopardize their chance to gain full control of Congress. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Johnson said on the PBS News Hour that he wanted a “fresh start” for the Secure Communities program, which involves local law enforcement sending fingerprints to both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

“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.

The program became controversial because if DHS finds that someone arrested has been deported or is a criminal alien, then Immigration and Customs Enforcement requires the local authorities to detain them for federal agents to pick up.

It was the clearest hint of what executive action President Barack Obama might take regarding his promise for a “more humane” deportation policy. However, the White House was not ready to talk about what that policy might be.

“I didn’t see that comment. What I think you know is that the president asked Secretary Johnson to address, to review procedures when it comes to enforcement,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told TheBlaze. “That review is underway. I would refer you to the department for any status they might have.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, and immigration groups have argued for eliminating the program.

“Secure communities cannot be successfully rebooted” and must end, ACLU attorney Joanne Lin told the Associated Press.

It’s difficult to do a reboot because the program only became fully operational last year, said Mark Krikorian, executive director for Center for Immigration, a think tank that advocates strict border enforcement.

Currently, ICE will target three categories of illegal immigrants flagged by the Secure Communities program. The first is serious offenders such as criminals, terrorists and drug dealers. Another category is recent entries into the country. A third is those were deported and either reentered the United States or just ignored a deportation order and stayed.

“They will have to continue to arrest terrorists and drug deals, and I think they could eliminate or modify the other two,” Krikorian told TheBlaze. “I expect this will just be a further limiting or narrowing to deport fewer illegal aliens.”

This would be consistent with the administration’s stated goal of focusing primarily on criminal aliens and not all illegal immigrants.

Krikorian added that it will be a difficult balancing test for the president in the 2014 midterm, because so much of his base wants sweeping reform that might alienate mainstream voters.

“This will only remove even more people from the possibility of deportation,” he said. “The hard left wants no more deportations.”