The Obama administration's top deportation official acknowledged on Tuesday that he could have asked Congress for flexibility to avoid having to release more than 2,000 immigrants back onto the streets ahead of the budget sequesters, but he decided the releases were a better option.
John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also said that some of those he has had to release have multiple drunk-driving offenses on their record, since those are not considered level one cases. He did not provide exact numbers.
Mr. Morton's decision to release 2,228 immigrants over a three-week period in February has become a major flashpoint in the debate over sequestration — the automatic budget cuts that took effect March 1.
He said his choice was between releasing immigrants or furloughing agents and cutting down on drug and child pornography investigations, and he said he wasn't going to do that.
"I did not want to rob Peter to pay Paul," Mr. Morton said.
Republicans, though, said that was setting up a false choice.
"I don't want Peter or Paul to rob one of our fellow citizens because you guessed wrong on who to release," replied Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican who said he suspects politics was behind the decision.
Mr. Morton provided some more details about the releases, saying that of the 2,228 immigrants who were released because of budget reasons eight were level one offenders — the worst level.
Four of those have been re-arrested after the agency decided they were too dangerous to leave on the streets. In two cases the computer records that led to their release were wrong, while in another case local officials made a mistake and didn't carry out their instructions properly, he said.
One level one case who is still on supervised release was a 68-year-old man who's been a legal permanent resident for 44 years. He is in deportation proceedings because of theft and drug offenses, Mr. Morton said.
"There are no mass releases of dangerous criminals underway," Mr. Morton said. "Just efforts to live within our budget."
ICE initially blamed the sequesters for the need to make the releases, but has since said it likely would have had to release the detainees anyway.
Mr. Morton said his agency is budgeted to maintain 34,000 detention beds but had already been operating over budget for the first five months of fiscal year 2013 because it had been helping hold illegal immigrants for the U.S. Border Patrol. At some points it was staffing more than 36,000 beds.
Mr. Morton said that meant they'd have to drop their average detention in order to end up at an average of 34,000 by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
He said they all are still subject to deportation and remain under some form of supervision.
Mr. Morton said the decision to make the releases was made by career ICE employees and was done without the input or knowledge of the White House and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
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Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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