By Jordy Yager - 02/28/13 04:03 PM EST
The top Republicans on the Senate and House Judiciary Committees are questioning Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about the release this week of hundreds of illegal immigrants being held in detention centers.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (Va.), in a letter to Napolitano, said the “poorly reasoned” decision to transfer the illegal immigrants to a supervised release program was evidence she hadn’t effectively prepared for the automatic sequester cuts set to take effect Friday. The lawmakers charged that Napolitano was violating her department’s main security mission.
“Simply blaming budget reductions as a means to turn a blind eye toward the national security of the American people is a dangerous plan and one that calls into question the department’s preparations for sequestration.”
The White House and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have said they did not know beforehand about the move by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which targeted only illegal immigrants deemed to be a low public-safety risk. ICE said the mass release was 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.
Grassley and Goodlatte 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.
The decision to release some illegal immigrants has sparked anger within the GOP, with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) calling the move “outrageous.”
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) on Wednesday also pressed ICE Director John Morton to turn over records on how many detainees had been released and what tools the agency was using to track illegal immigrants.
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.
The top Judiciary Republicans also pressed Napolitano for answers on how many of the congressionally mandated 34,000 beds will not be filled if the sequestration cuts go into effect.
ICE is required by Congress to fill a daily average of 34,000 beds with people suspected of being in the country illegally. But only 30,773 of those beds were filled, according to the most recent numbers reported by ICE last week.
“Releasing criminal aliens and failing to utilize the detention beds that Congress has mandated is an abrogation of the Department’s Mission to ensure the safety and security of Americans,” Grassley and Goodlatte wrote.
Napolitano is one of a number of Cabinet officials who have warned of the fallout from the impending budget cuts.
The secretary warned this week that sequestration cuts would affect DHS’s “core critical mission areas” and would weaken the United States’s security posture.
“I don't think we can maintain the same level of security at all places around the country with sequester compared to without sequester,” she said at a rare appearance at a White House briefing on Monday.
The lawmakers also requested that Napolitano give their committees more information on the number of people her department has hired over the last year, whether DHS plans to do away with conferences for staff, the effect sequestration will have on official agency travel costs and a “a detailed explanation of cuts that will reduce wasteful, duplicative and ineffective programs.”