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ICE director defends release of illegal immigrants from jails

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WASHINGTON – The director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Tuesday defended his agency’s decision to release more than 2,000 illegal immigrants last month, saying it was necessary to keep the agency within its budget.

ICE Director John Morton told a skeptical House Judiciary Committee that all of the 2,228 inmates released still face deportation proceedings and are being tracked through bonds, ankle bracelets or other arrangements.

“There are no mass releases of dangerous criminals underway, or any in the future,” Morton said. “Just efforts to live within our budget.”

But Morton conceded that 629 of those released had criminal convictions and eight were “level-one” offenders – those convicted of major drug offenses or violent crimes and considered to pose the highest threat to the community.

At least one of those eight was in Arizona, he said.

Republicans in the hearing blasted the releases, which they said were motivated by politics and not by the budget. The releases came just days before the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration, which the White House had warned would have disastrous effects.

“It does look like the decision to release the detainees was a political determination and not a monetary determination,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. He said the administration was trying to frighten the American people.

“It appears to me that the release of the detainees was part of a sequester campaign that included the fictional firing of teachers, the closing of the White House for student tours, the displacement of meat inspectors and now we are going to release aggravated felons, some aggravated felons, onto the street,” Gowdy said.

Morton said his agency, which is budgeted for 34,000 jail beds, had been holding at least 1,000 more illegal immigrants than that. At a cost of about $122 a day to keep someone locked up, and with budget threats looming, ICE decided in December that it needed to reduce that number of detainees.

“The releases were a direct result of ICE’s efforts to stay within its detention budget in light of the CR (continuing federal budget resolution) and sequestration,” Morton said.

He said the release of level-one inmates was unintentional. Two were released because of inaccurate computer records and a third was just a mistake, he said, “where the instructions to the field were not carried out.”

Four of the level-one offenders are already back in custody, but four are not, he said.

Morton used the level-one offender from Arizona as an example of why it is difficult to classify people. The 68-year-old man had lived in the country for 44 years and was a level-one inmate because of a drug conviction years ago. An immigration judge determined he was not a danger to the community.

“That just goes to show you these are hard calls,” Morton said. “You have to look at people’s individual circumstances. That is why immigration enforcement is so challenging.”

Morton said inmate releases are not unusual, noting that the agency releases thousands of detainees every month, but still keeps track of them through less costly means.

But Gowdy said there had to be other places in the budget to cut the approximately $600 per day he said it would have cost to keep the four remaining level-one inmates behind bars.

“You could have found $600 to keep these level-one violators from being released, and don’t act like you could not have,” Gowdy shouted.