The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency scared Americans by releasing more than 2,200 illegal immigrants last month without any warning, Republican House members charged Tuesday.
“Do you see the way it was handled could scare the American people?” Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, asked ICE Director John Morton at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. “I know it did in my district. I think it couldn’t have been handled worse.”
Anger over the ICE action prompted the Judiciary Committee’s Republican leaders to title Tuesday’s hearing, “The Release of Criminal Detainees by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: Policy or Politics?”
Morton acknowledged that he could have done a better job of informing Congress, especially the committees that oversee his agency.
“I take full responsibility,” he told committee members. “That buck stops with me.”
But he said the decision was not political and was made by him and career ICE officials and not by President Obama or Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
“I regret that the timing of our releases caught many by surprise,” Morton said. “The releases were a direct result of ICE’s efforts to stay within its detention budget.”
It was the second time in less than a week that Morton faced tough questioning about the release of immigrants from ICE detention facilities throughout the nation between Feb. 9 and March 1.
The ICE director testified before a House Appropriations subcommittee last Thursday that his agency had released 2,228 illegal immigrants and legal immigrants who have committed crimes.
Morton said he had no choice because of budget constraints, including an automatic 5 percent across-the-board sequester cut that began March 1 and will cost his agency nearly $300 million during the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year.
“In reducing detention levels, we took careful steps to ensure that national security and public safety were not compromised by the releases,” Morton testified.
Rep. John Conyers, Jr., D-Mich., defended the administration.
“The title of the hearing asks whether this was motivated by policy or politics, but I don’t believe it was either,” said Conyers, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Conyers said the administration has set records for deportations and detentions and has no reason to start setting detainees free for no reason. As for politics, the releases don’t help the president’s efforts to enact comprehensive immigration reform, Conyers said.
“This discussion does not advance that goal, so I don’t see how it could be motivated by politics,” Conyers said.
Republicans agreed that detainee releases hurt bipartisan efforts at reform.
“They undermine the goodwill necessary to develop a common-sense, step-by-step approach to improving our immigration system,” said Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.
Still, Goodlatte said he believes the administration was playing politics by hyping the effects of the automatic budget cuts to try to make Republicans in Congress look bad.
“I am very concerned about how this was handled,” he said.
Erin Kelly reports for Gannett Washington Bureau.