ICE director faces frosty reception next week on Capitol Hill

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.

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“I regret that the timing of our releases caught many by surprise and we would be happy to brief your staffs further on this issue,” said Morton in his prepared remarks before the House Judiciary Committee.

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 GoodlatteGOP lays out regulatory reform wish list As former Copyright Office leaders, we support an autonomous register of copyrights The Hill's 12:30 Report 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 GrassleyTrump eyeing second Supreme Court seat Grassley: Another Supreme Court vacancy likely this summer Sweeping change at DOJ under Sessions 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 BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection 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 McConnellFive fights for Trump’s first year Warren builds her brand with 2020 down the road AACR’s march on Washington MORE (R-Ky.) and Sens. James InhofeJames InhofeTaiwan deserves to participate in United Nations Optimism rising for infrastructure deal Repeal of Obama drilling rule stalls in the Senate MORE (R-Okla.), David VitterDavid VitterFormer senator who crafted chemicals law to lobby for chemicals industry Former GOP rep joins K Street lobbying firm Capitol Counsel Lobbying World MORE (R-La.), John BoozmanJohn BoozmanMedicare’s coverage decisions need more input from physicians GOP lawmakers call on FCC chair to soften data services proposal Senate Republicans eyeing alternative tax reform plan MORE (R-Ark.), Pat RobertsPat RobertsPicking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groups IRS chief says he's committed to finishing his term Overnight Finance: CBO predicts budget deficits, debt to hit new highs in 30 years | Meet Trump’s Ms. Fix-It | Trump, Mnuchin talk tax reform | Mexico's B windfall MORE (R-Kan.) and Dan CoatsDan CoatsNorth Korea briefing moved to White House 'Can you hear me now?' Trump team voices credible threat of force McCain says he hasn't met with Trump since inauguration 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.”