By Jordy Yager - 02/28/13 01:21 AM EST
The White House on Wednesday said it did not approve the release this week of hundreds of illegal immigrants being held in detention centers, as Republicans turned up the heat on the budget-cutting move ahead of the sequester.
White House spokesman Jay Carney and a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official said the decision by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was not signed off on by the administration, but was made by career officials.
Republicans have begun hammering the administration for answers as to why earlier this week ICE released “several hundred” illegal immigrants into a supervised monitoring program.
An ICE spokeswoman said the move, which targeted only illegal immigrants deemed to be a low public safety risk, was in preparation for the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts, widely expected to go into effect on Friday, which would limit the number of detainees ICE could pay to house.
A DHS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Hill on Wednesday that career detention facility administrators release low-risk illegal immigrants into a less costly supervision program on a nearly daily basis. Administrators make the call based on their budgetary and infrastructure constraints, without the need for sign-off approval from administration officials, the official said.
But House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and other top Republicans want more answers on the move, which Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called “outrageous.”
On Wednesday, McCaul pressed ICE
Director John Morton to turn over records on exactly how many detainees had been released, the location of their release and the specific monitoring tools being used to track the illegal immigrants.
“This decision reflects the lack of resource prioritization within the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement and is indicative of the department’s weak stance on national security,” McCaul said in his letter to Morton.
McCaul also asked ICE to give the committee its plans for any future releases, the reason why each illegal immigrant was initially detained and the length of his or her detention. He has given the administration one week to reply.
There is an emerging concern among some Republicans, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), that the mass release of the illegal immigrants could undermine immigration reform talks with the White House.
Goodlatte, who will play a key role in moving immigration reform legislation this year, said the move by ICE was “abhorrent” and endangered the public’s safety.
But a spokesman for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is part of the upper chamber’s Gang of Eight group working to craft an immigration reform measure, told The Hill that the move won’t negatively affect discussions with the administration on the larger issue.
McCain did question whether the release of detained illegal immigrants was “the only way to save money?” in a tweet hours before talking with President Obama at the White House on Tuesday.
ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said the agency is still detaining people seen as posing a significant threat to the public’s safety. While Christensen has not specified how many people have been released, she said they would remain in deportation proceedings and have not been granted any form of temporary residency or citizenship.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.) was one of the only Democrats to openly praise the move, saying on Wednesday that ICE should use the supervised release program as much as possible with detained illegal immigrants who don’t pose a high threat to the public.
“Whereas locking up an immigrant costs the American taxpayer more than $150 a day, these proven supervision programs cost about $10 a day,” said Roybal-Allard in a statement. “More importantly, with success rates above 90 percent, they deliver strong results. If Republicans were really serious about fiscal responsibility and about fixing our broken immigration system, they would join me in applauding ICE’s decision.”
The president has made immigration reform a top legislative priority during his second term, prompting several groups of lawmakers in the House and Senate to begin crafting bills, while committees have launched into hearings on the topic.
Obama and many Democrats want a bill to include a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. But a significant number of Republicans have demanded that Congress and the administration first take more steps to tighten security along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Some bad blood also remains between Republicans and the administration from last year, when ICE began prioritizing the detention and deportation of illegal immigrants who had criminal records and were deemed to pose a more significant threat to the public over those who did not.
— Amie Parnes contributed to this report.
— Updated at 8:21 p.m.