Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson admitted Tuesday that the Obama administration has given deferred deportation status to other illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds, in addition to one man who is now a triple murder suspect.
Johnson testified at the Senate Judiciary Committee about a week after his department acknowledged that it let Emmanuel Jesus Rangel-Hernandez apply for and receive benefits under President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. That decision was made even though Rangel-Hernandez was a known gang member - DHS was forced to admit the mistake, and told the Senate that he "should not have been approved."
Rangel-Hernandez is now charged with killing three people in North Carolina.
But on Tuesday, Johnson said there are other people with "similar" situations that have also benefitted from the program, known as DACA.
"We retrained the force, and we've done a retrospective review of every DACA case, every DACA participant, to see whether there are any similar to this case," Johnson said. "We've idenfitied some, and we continue to evaluate this to make sure that we've reduced situations like this to zero in the DACA program."
Johnson didn't offer any other details on how many people might have situations "similar" to that of Rangel-Hernandez, except to say later in the hearing that he thought there were a "handful of others" with similar cases.
But his comment immediately grabbed the attention of Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who said it sounds like DHS doesn't quite have a zero tolerance for giving criminals DACA. Grassley pressed Johnson several times to answer why Rangel-Hernandez was approved under DACA, but Johnson had no clear answer.
"Answer to the 'why' question is simply, he should not have received DACA," Johnson said. "I believe on balance DACA is a good program."
"I also believe that this case is a tragic case, and this individual should not have received DACA, I can not state that in stronger terms," he said.
When asked again how the mistake happened, Johnson said he wasn't sure, but that he believed it was the fault of people who do criminal background checks on DACA applicants.
"I believe that the error occured -- and I don't have the facts in detail -- but I believe the error occured once he was referred to those who normally conduct the background checks," he said.
Grassley said he has written to DHS to ask about another DACA recipient who appears to have a criminal record, but said DHS has not written back. Grassley said this applicant has been charged with second-degree murder in Arizona, and he asked DHS to get back to him with more information by the end of this week.
Johnson said a few hundred people have seen their DACA benefits rescinded for various reasons. Rangel-Hernandez was removed the program once his background was discovered.