Jeh Johnson
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee on the U.S. government response to the Ebola outbreak in Washington, D.C., Nov. 12, 2014. Reuters

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson defended President Barack Obama's controversial executive actions on immigration as legal and denied that the move was politically motivated as he testified before a House committee Tuesday. Johnson also dismissed Republican fears that the policy would encourage more illegal immigration.

The Homeland Security secretary said Obama initially wanted to roll out the executive orders in the spring but delayed them at the behest of Republican leaders. After it was clear that House Speaker John Boehner would not let immigration reform reach the House floor, the president acted.

"So we waited a considerable amount of time," Johnson said in response to a question by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, who wondered aloud whether Obama's decision was motivated by politics instead of policy. McCaul noted that Obama initially said he did not believe he had legal authority to use his executive powers to change immigration policy: "He has changed his tune on this, and I think that's what's so confusing to Congress and the American people about the authenticity of the president's decision."

McCaul also said he was worried that the new immigration policy would create a wave of illegal immigration. But Johnson said that is not the case because the government is publicizing that new border crossers would be turned back.

"We prioritize recent illegal migrants. We prioritize those who came here illegally after Jan. 1, 2014, and I intend to highlight that fact wherever I go," the Homeland Security secretary said.

Johnson appeared before the House Homeland Security Committee. The committee is looking into the consequences that President Barack Obama’s controversial executive action on immigration has on border security in a hearing titled “Open Borders: The Impact of Presidential Amnesty on Border Security.”

Obama’s executive action, signed late last month, protects roughly 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation. Illegals who are parents of U.S. citizens or permanent residents and have lived in America for more than five years will be protected under the order, provided they pay taxes. The executive action protects such individuals from deportation for only three years at a time, according to a White House fact sheet on the order. Felons, terrorism suspects, gang members and recent illegal immigrants will be at the top of the deportation list and won’t be protected.

The executive order came under fire from Republicans, who accused Obama of presidential overreach. They said the action amounted to legislation, which can only be made through Congress.

The GOP is mulling options on how to respond to the executive order. One possibility is to only temporarily fund Homeland Security operations on immigration while financing other government operations until September, the New York Times reported. “Folks understand we won’t fix it now, but they won’t understand if we don’t send a message to the president that we don’t agree with what he did,” U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., told the Times.

Johnson, as Homeland Security secretary, issued a memo to his agency “that makes clear that the government enforcement activity should be focused on national security threats, serious criminals and recent border crossers,” the fact sheet goes on to say. The agency “will direct all of its enforcement resources at pursuing these highest priorities for removal” from the United States.