WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration reversed itself Thursday, acknowledging to Congress that it had, in fact, released more than 2,000 illegal immigrants from immigration jails due to budget constraints during three weeks in February.
The director of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, John Morton, said his agency had released 2,228 illegal immigrants during that period for what he called "solely budgetary reasons." The figure was significantly higher than the "few hundred" immigrants the Obama administration had publicly acknowledged were released under the budget-savings process. He testified during a hearing by a House appropriations subcommittee.
Morton told lawmakers Thursday that the decision to release the immigrants was not discussed in advance with political appointees, including those in the White House or Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. He said the pending automatic cuts known as sequestration was "driving in the background."
"We were trying to live within the budget that Congress had provided us," Morton told lawmakers. "This was not a White House call. I take full responsibility."
The Associated Press, citing internal budget documents, reported exclusively on March 1 that the administration had released more than 2,000 illegal immigrants since Feb. 15 and planned to release 3,000 more in March due to looming budget cuts, but Napolitano said days later that the AP's report was "not really accurate" and that the story had developed "its own mythology."
"Several hundred are related to sequester, but it wasn't thousands," Napolitano said March 4 at a Politico-sponsored event.
On March 5, the House Judiciary Committee publicly released an internal ICE document that it said described the agency's plans to release thousands of illegal immigrants before March 31. The document was among those reviewed by the AP for its story days earlier.
The immigrants who were released still eventually face deportation and are required to appear for upcoming court hearings. But they are no longer confined in immigration jails, where advocacy experts say they cost about $164 per day per person. Immigrants who are granted supervised release -- with conditions that can include mandatory check-ins, home visits and GPS devices -- cost the government from 30 cents to $14 a day, according to the National Immigration Forum, a group that advocates on behalf of immigrants.
Morton said Thursday that among the immigrants released were 10 people considered the highest level of offender. Morton said that although that category of offender can include people convicted of aggravated felonies, many of the people released were facing financial crimes. Four of the most serious offenders have been put back in detention. Other people released include immigrants who had faced multiple drunken driving offenses, misdemeanor crimes and traffic offenses, Morton said.
After the administration challenged the AP's reporting, ICE said it didn't know how many people had been released for budget reasons but would review its records.