Napolitano: Timing of illegal immigrants' release could've been better

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Thursday she wishes the supervised release of hundreds of illegal immigrants from detention centers would have been spread over time to help alleviate concerns from the public and Congress.

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As Republican criticism of the move continued to boil, Napolitano told ABC News that career Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials made the decision to release the detainees they deemed to be low-risk as a way to guard against the automatic budget cuts expected to kick in on Friday.

"Detainee populations and how that is managed back and forth is really handled by career officials in the field," Napolitano said in the interview.

"Do I wish that this all hadn't been done all of a sudden and so that people weren't surprised by it? Of course.”

John Morton, the director of ICE, also sought to cool Republican worries on Thursday as he assured House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) that his agency would work to fill the required 34,000 beds at detention facilities, according to a committee aide.

Morton promised to respond to McCaul’s letter earlier this week that raised questions about exactly how many detainees had been released and what tools ICE was using to track illegal immigrants, the aide said.

The White House and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have said they did not know beforehand about the move by ICE, which targeted only illegal immigrants deemed to be a low public-safety risk.

But Republican questions and criticism have been steadily growing since the mass release came to light on Monday. ICE said the decision was made in preparation for the $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts, widely expected to go into effect on March 1, which would limit the number of detainees ICE could pay to house.

A DHS official told The Hill this week 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 the White House, the official said.

Napolitano told ABC News that she was actively trying to figure out why the released illegal immigrants were detained in the first place and not placed in the less-expensive monitoring program.

In a letter to Napolitano this week, the top Republicans on the Senate and House Judiciary Committees said the “poorly reasoned” decision was evidence she hadn’t effectively prepared for the automatic sequester cuts and that the move violated her department’s main security mission, protecting the public’s safety.

In their letter, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) asked Napolitano to provide them with a number of details about the release of the illegal immigrants, including a cost analysis, the criminal records of the aliens released and which agency officials were involved in making the decision.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the move “outrageous” earlier this week as well, and Republicans have showed no signs of letting up their quest for more answers about the decision.

Goodlatte, who will play a key role in moving immigration-reform legislation, has questioned whether the mass detainee release could undermine Republican trust in the ongoing talks with the White House aimed at reaching a compromise to revamp the nation’s immigration laws.

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.