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Release of undocumented immigrants draws fire from House committee

Scripps Howard Foundation Wire Service

Published: Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Updated: Friday, May 17, 2013 12:05

ICE Director

Jasmine Aguilera

Immigration Customs Enforcement Director John Morton takes his seat March 19 at a House Judiciary Committee hearing. Morton was asked about the 2,228 undocumented immigrants that were released from detention in February.

WASHINGTON – Immigration Customs Enforcement Director John Morton was under fire at a hearing Tuesday about the February release of 2,228 undocumented immigrants from detention facilities.

House Judiciary Committee members asked Morton why the detainees, who were awaiting deportation hearings, were released.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the committee chair, said Morton had previously admitted that 629 of the released immigrants were criminals, eight of whom are considered level-one criminals, or those who have been convicted of an aggravated felony.

“This decision directly contradicts ICE’s mission to promote homeland security and public safety through the enforcement of our immigration laws,” Goodlatte said.

But Morton said ICE had to cut its budget by 5 percent due to sequestration and to prepare for the end of a six-month Continuing Resolution, through which ICE is funded.

Goodlatte said ICE’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, is politicizing sequestration mandates through the detainees’ release.

Some committee members grilled Morton, but others – mostly Democracts – wondered if detention was being over-used on those who do not pose a danger. Of those released, 1,599 were not considered to be criminals.

ICE is able to maintain an average daily population of approximately 34,000 individuals in detention facilities. In early February, ICE held more than 35,000 individuals.

Rep. Rául Labrador, R-Idaho, said ICE’s budget has increased 10 percent since 2008, and asked why ICE could not deal with a 5 percent cut.

Morton said the agency is operating at an all-time high, deporting an average of 400,000 undocumented immigrants per year for the last four years. 

“It goes back to recognition that the agency gets asked to do far more than Congress appropriates,” Morton said. “We are in a situation where 11 million people on average are here unlawfully, and the agency has enough resources to move about 400,000 of them per year. … It is why at the end of the day I think bipartisan efforts to come to some level of comprehensive immigration reform is the thoughtful way out.”

Reps. George Holding, R-N.C., Tom Marino, R-Pa., Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, and Labrador asked why ICE did not notify local law-enforcement officials about the release of the 629 criminals.

Morton said that, as far as he knew, those who were released from detention have not committed crimes since their release. Some are wearing electronic monitoring devices.

Holding and Goodlatte asked why ICE did not ask Congress to authorize the agency to move money to a different ICE budget area to prevent the release.

Goodlatte said the prisoner release could be a setback in the process of immigration reform.

“I am very concerned with how this has been handled,” Goodlatte said. “This has not been helpful to that process because we have got to build the confidence of the American people that we need comprehensive immigration reform in some way, shape or form.”

Reach reporter Jasmine Aguilera, UTEP senior multimedia major, at jasmine.aguilera@shns.com or 202-326-9866.

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