By Jordy Yager - 03/16/13 12:32 PM EDT
The Obama administration’s top immigration official faces a frosty reception on Capitol Hill next week when he appears before a panel to explain the release of hundreds of illegal immigrants from detention centers, a move that caught lawmakers off guard.
In advance testimony, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton said he regrets not giving Congress a heads up about the release. Morton said he wants to work with lawmakers to avoid future miscommunication on the agency’s actions.
Morton’s testimony echoes similar sentiments expressed in a separate letter to House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) earlier this week.
“I regret that the timing of our releases caught some by surprise and we will work with the committee to avoid any such confusion in the future,” Morton wrote.
The administration has been on the defensive since news surfaced that ICE had released “several hundred” detainees. Internal budget documents from the agency that have since been made public suggest that as many as several thousand illegal immigrants may have been released onto a less costly supervised monitoring program.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteBob GoodlatteIRS head vows to finish term despite impeachment push House Republicans press case for impeaching IRS commissioner Saudis scramble for Washington allies MORE (R-Va.) will have the first go at grilling Morton on Tuesday. Together with the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking member Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyTen senators ask FCC to delay box plan Overnight Cybersecurity: Guccifer plea deal raises questions in Clinton probe Could Romanian hacker ‘Guccifer’ assist FBI’s probe of Clinton? MORE (R-Iowa), Goodlatte penned a highly critical letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano two weeks ago asking for more information.
A committee aide said that Goodlatte has not received any correspondence from Morton, aside from his advanced testimony.
Goodlatte is expected to question Morton for details on exactly how many illegal immigrants were released in the move that ICE and White House officials have described being made by career agency officials in an effort to deal with the automatic budget cuts put into place with sequestration.
There are a number of remaining questions on the move, which Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerHouse GOP faces dilemma on spending bills Overnight Finance: Puerto Rico bill clears panel | IRS chief vows to finish term | Bill would require nominees to release tax returns Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief fears sequestration's return MORE (R-Ohio) called “outrageous.” Republican leaders are showing no signs of relenting in their criticism.
Grassley introduced an amendment to the Senate’s continuing resolution bill earlier this week that would force ICE to give Congress answers to many of their questions, including the nature of the crimes the detainees are alleged to have originally committed.
Administration officials have stressed that only low-risk illegal immigrants were released onto the monitoring program and that they all continue to be in deportation proceedings. The monitoring program was started under President George W. Bush as a less expensive alternative to housing people in detention facilities.
Grassley’s measure has garnered the support of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMcConnell: Trump White House will have ‘constraints’ Nearly 400 House bills stuck in Senate limbo McConnell-allied group: We'll back Rubio if he runs for reelection MORE (R-Ky.) and Sens. James InhofeJames InhofePaul blocks chemical safety bill in Senate GOP senators propose sending ISIS fighters to Gitmo Overnight Defense: VA chief 'deeply' regrets Disney remark; Senate fight brews over Gitmo MORE (R-Okla.), David VitterDavid VitterOvernight Energy: Trump outlines 'America First' energy plan in North Dakota Paul blocks chemical safety bill in Senate House Republican pushes bill to 'curb regulatory overreach' MORE (R-La.), John BoozmanJohn BoozmanOvernight Tech: House GOP launches probe into phone, internet subsidies Overnight Tech: Trade groups press NC on bathroom law GOP senators: Obama bathroom guidance is 'not appropriate' MORE (R-Ark.), Pat RobertsPat RobertsGOP senators propose sending ISIS fighters to Gitmo Passing the Kelsey Smith Act will help law enforcement save lives Overnight Defense: VA chief 'deeply' regrets Disney remark; Senate fight brews over Gitmo MORE (R-Kan.) and Dan CoatsDan CoatsDems to GOP: Cancel Memorial Day break GOP senators: Obama bathroom guidance is 'not appropriate' Overnight Defense: House panel unveils 5B defense spending bill MORE (R-Ind.).
In his letter to McCaul, Morton said ICE was keeping an average of 35,176 illegal immigrants in detention facilities as of Feb. 4, 2013, which exceeds the 34,000 beds that Congress requires it to maintain.
“With such high levels of detention and with the looming possibility of sequestration, ICE officials had to lower the detention population in order to ensure that we did not overspend the funds provided by Congress under the continuing resolution,” wrote Morton.
By the end of February, ICE reported filling 30,773 beds. Republicans have repeatedly asked for answers about how the agency ensures that it meets congressional requirements on bed levels.
Morton said that while the average number of filled beds at detention facilities will fluctuate from month to month, “ICE always seeks to manage its detention beds to maintain the average funded over the course of the given appropriation.”