House Republicans pressed White House officials for more answers Tuesday on the unexpected release last month of more than 2,000 illegal immigrants in anticipation of automatic across-the-board federal budget cuts.
Republicans blasted the move as part of an ongoing campaign by the White House – which included the threat of teachers being fired and of food inspectors being laid off – to scare the public so constituents would oppose the budget cuts, known as sequestration.
Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, noted that federal officials had to re-apprehend four illegal immigrants who were arrested for more severe crimes.
He described the release as a “recipe for disaster.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released 2,228 illegal immigrants last month because of budget constraints, including more than 600 convicted criminals. ICE Director John Morton testified that 70 percent did not have any prior criminal records and 20 percent had convictions for one or two misdemeanors. Ten individuals were classified as more serious, Level One offenders. All of the released detainees are still in deportation proceedings, he said.
Federal officials did not compromise national security or public safety, Morton said, but they were trying to “live within our budget.” He cited the agencies’ record number of deportations, nearly 410,000 in fiscal 2012, and said detention levels already exceeded congressional funding levels.
“This is the highest level of detention ICE has ever maintained over the first five months of any fiscal year in history,” he said.
Facing nearly $300 million in budget cuts, Morton said repeatedly that he did not want to “rob Peter to pay Paul.”
If officials did not release the nonviolent detainees, he said, the agency may have had to cut other departments that focused on tracking drug smugglers, human traffickers and child pornographers. But Republicans said the agency could have asked for permission to move money from less vital areas of the department, including training, travel and conference budgets, instead of releasing the detainees.
“I counted six times that you said you didn’t want to rob Peter to pay Paul. I don’t want Peter or Paul to rob our fellow citizens because you guessed wrong on who to release,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who is chairman of the immigration subcommittee.
There are going to be consequences, said Gowdy, a former prosecutor, who added that some of those released are going to commit crimes again “because of this public relations stunt gone wrong.”