House GOP grills top Obama immigration official over release of illegal detainees

House Republicans grilled the Obama administration’s top immigration official on Tuesday for releasing more than 2,000 illegal immigrants from detention facilities.

Republicans accused the administration of playing politics and balked at why Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton didn’t ask Congress to move money from another part of the agency to better fund its detention efforts.

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Morton stressed that career agency officials made the decision to release 2,228 illegal immigrants in February and place them on supervised monitoring programs in an effort to decrease operational costs in the agency ahead of the vast budget cuts under sequestration.

Morton said he was reluctant to ask Congress to reprogram the agency’s funding because he would have had to take money away from the domestic investigations division — the second largest within ICE — which pursues the illegal movement of people and goods, such as child pornographers, human and sex traffickers, and drug smugglers.

“I am trying to live within the appropriations that Congress gives us. Our single largest appropriation is for custody operations,” said Morton in response to questions from Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va).

“I did not want to rob Peter to pay Paul. My view is we need to maintain the operations of the agency; I don’t want to furlough people,” he added.

The administration has said ICE released illegal immigrants who posed the lowest level of risk to the public.

Of the 2,228 illegal immigrants released last month, Morton said 70 percent did not have any prior criminal records and 20 percent had convictions for one or two misdemeanors.

Morton said on Tuesday that ICE had released “many” illegal immigrants who had drunk driving records, but only eight Level-1 criminal offenders, the most severe level of aggravated felons, had been released. Morton said four of those serious criminals had been subsequently detained again, because officials realized they had made a mistake in releasing them.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) focused in on the Level-1 criminal offenders who were released last month, saying that they are a serious danger to the American public.

“I’ve counted six times you have said you didn’t want to rob Peter to pay Paul. I don’t want Peter or Paul to rob one of our fellow citizens because you guessed wrong on who to release,” said Gowdy.

Gowdy said he thought the mass release of illegal immigrants was an attempt by the administration to scare the American public into pressuring Congress to make a deal with the president to avert the sequestration cuts which took effect on March 1. Gowdy grouped the illegal immigrant release with other actions, such as the White House’s temporary cancellation of public tours, reports from the administration about public school teachers who had been furloughed, and the administration’s expressed concern about untested food.

Morton said the decision to release some detainees was ultimately made by Gary Mead, the director of Enforcement and Removal Operations, who publicly announced his retirement shortly after news of the illegal immigrant release became public. Officials with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees ICE, said Mead had made the decision to retire long before the news of the released detainees broke.

Morton emphasized that ICE released thousands of illegal immigrants onto supervised monitoring programs every month. More than 350,000 people are involved in detention proceedings at any given time, Morton said, with the majority of them not in detention. Congress has required ICE to fill an average of 34,000 beds at detention facilities throughout the country each month.