Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Thursday defended his department’s decision to selectively enforce immigration laws through “prosecutorial discretion,” telling members of Congress that they don’t have the right to “micromanage” the executive branch.

“I think that the legislative branch … whether it’s the enforcement of immigration laws, the enforcement of criminal laws or how we conduct counterterrorism operations, needs to be careful not to intrude into the discretion that the executive branch should normally have,” Johnson said.

immigration reform Trey Gowdy Jeh Johnson Bob Goodlatte

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson told members of the House on Thursday that Congress can’t “micromanage” the executive branch on immigration. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“You cannot, with all respect, micromanage certain functions that the Executive is charged with carrying out,” he said.

Johnson testified at the House Judiciary Committee amid numerous Republican complaints about the Obama administration’s decision to focus enforcement of immigration laws on illegal immigrants with criminal records or who otherwise pose a threat to Americans. That policy change is seen by Republicans as an attempt by the president to weaken immigration laws on his own, after having failed to get this result legislatively.

“DHS does this under the guise of ‘prosecutorial discretion,’ ” Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said in his opening statement. “The beneficiaries include many thousands of aliens who have been arrested by state and local law enforcement or convicted criminals who have been put in removal proceedings and who DHS simply has let back onto our streets.”

“In addition to simply not pursuing removable aliens, DHS has been granting hundreds of thousands of them administrative legalization and work authorization,” he added. “DHS does this under many guises, invoking doctrines with esoteric names such as ‘deferred action’ and ‘parole-in-place.’ ”

Johnson was also pushed hard on the issue by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who asked if there are any differences between prosecutorial discretion and simply ignoring parts of the law that the administration doesn’t like.

“I believe there are,” Johnson answered. “I think that there comes a point where something looks like a wholesale abandonment of the enforcement of the law, versus prosecutorial discretion.”

But when Gowdy asked whether Congress has the right to set firm priorities that the administration must follow, Johnson warned that Congress can’t micromanage the executive branch. He also said Congress is essentially left to setting broad goals, after which the executive branch should decide on the details.

“The legislative branch can and should and has the prerogative to set the broad parameters for national policy, and the executive should be given a certain amount of discretion based on existing circumstances to implement and enforce those laws,” he said.

Gowdy rejected that answer, and said that interpretation poses a danger to the United States’ system of government.

“The beauty of this country is, even if our politics differ, we still respect the rule of law, and we are playing with the foundation of this Republic when we decide selectively which laws we’re going to enforce due to political expediency,” he said. “I would urge you to help me find where that line is between prosecutorial discretion and just deciding you don’t like to enforce a law.”

Johnson used his appearance to note that President Barack Obama asked him this week to delay his review of immigration enforcement priorities until the end of the summer. That delay is seen as a last-ditch attempt by Obama to see if Congress can pass an immigration reform bill in the next few months.

Barring a breakthrough, Obama has warned he would take more executive branch actions on immigration, which are again expected to focused on deferred action.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) asked Johnson to describe what actions would be taken, but Johnson revealed nothing. “I’m not in a position to answer it now, and my review is not complete,” he said.