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 Goodlatte (R-Va.) will have the first go at grilling Morton on Tuesday. Together with the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley (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 Boehner (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 McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), David Vitter (R-La.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Dan Coats (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.”