Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton testifies before… (Win McNamee / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — Immigration officials acknowledged Thursday that they had released 2,228 illegal immigrants from detention in February and early March, not several hundred as they previously had announced, in an effort to reduce spending in advance of mandatory budget cuts.
John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told a House subcommittee hearing that four of those discharged were rearrested after agents discovered they had violent criminal records.
At least six others had felony convictions or had repeatedly violated immigration laws, Morton said, and dozens more had been arrested for shoplifting and petty larceny, or cited for drunk driving. Like the others released, they must report in regularly or wear a GPS tracking device.
Morton said the detainees were let out of jails and detention facilities between Feb. 9 and March 1 for "solely budgetary reasons," not for political considerations.
"We were running hot," Morton said, citing a recent surge in arrests by the Border Patrol in the Southwest.
The agency faced a $71-million budget gap, in part because Congress had provided funds to hold 34,000 people, not the 36,000 in custody, he said. The agency expected additional budget cuts under the so-called sequester that began March 1.
Morton said he decided to trim the $2-billion detention budget rather than cut spending for investigators who chase drug smugglers, money laundering operations and child pornographers.
On Feb. 26, Morton's agency sparked widespread criticism in Congress when it announced in a statement that it had released "several hundred" detainees in the previous week because of budget concerns. Although subsequent media reports suggested far more detainees had been released, the agency did not publicly confirm the total or provide any other information until the hearing Thursday.
Morton insisted that neither the White House nor Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano were involved in the decision to release the detainees.
"This was an ICE call. I take full responsibility for it," he said.
Agency officials said releases took place across the country but would not provide specifics. Immigrant advocate groups said that, anecdotally, they knew releases took place in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas.
In sometimes combative language, Republican lawmakers on the committee criticized the decision to release so many detainees into communities without warning, and accused the Obama administration of trying to circumvent immigration laws.
"You shouldn't have turned those bad guys loose," Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) said.
He said news of the release "was like throwing a hand grenade" into tense White House and Republicans talks to resolve the budget crisis and to overhaul immigration laws.
"The optics of this are terrible," Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said. "This should have been handled in a much different way."
Immigrant advocates said the release showed most illegal immigrants should be freed from detention with requirements to check in regularly.
A report last year by the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group based in Washington, argued that each person detained costs taxpayers $164 a day, while each one released with GPS devices, mandatory check-ins or other supervision costs $14 a day.
"I think the real scandal here is not the people who were let out, but the people who were in jail in the first place who never should have been," Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, based in Los Angeles, said in a telephone interview.