ICE: Sorry for the Confusion About Releases

Mar 18, 2013 Issues: Border Security

CQ -- By Rob Margetta

Immigration and Customs Enforcement head John T. Morton last week maintained that the thousands of illegal immigrants released from detention were an unavoidable part of living under a short-term continuing resolution, but he apologized if the news came as a shock to Congress.

“I regret that the timing of our releases caught some by surprise and we will work with the Committee to avoid any such confusion in the future,” Morton said in a March 13 letter to House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas.

McCaul was one of several congressional Republicans to condemn the releases after ICE confirmed in February that it let hundreds of illegal immigrants out on supervised release, citing anticipated funding troubles from the budget sequester. The congressman accused the Obama administration of pursuing its “desired goal of shifting money away from detentions and returning to a de facto catch-and-release policy” and demanded details on ICE’s actions.

In the weeks that followed, ICE acknowledged that there were actually thousands released in February. Officials including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that the “several hundred” estimate for sequester-related releases was correct and that the rest were due to the normal ebb-and-flow of immigration proceedings. Morton provided a different account to House appropriators last week. While the sequester releases were in the hundreds, the rest were also budget-related — the agency was afraid it would drain its detention account before the continuing resolution currently funding the government (PL 112-175) expires this month.

He maintained that narrative in his letter.

“Earlier this fiscal year ... ICE maintained detention levels that exceeded Congressional appropriations at a rate that would have been unsustainable throughout that period,” he wrote. He added later that between the CR and the sequester, “this fiscal year has been a particular challenge.”

While Congress has mandated that the agency must maintain 34,000 detention beds — and GOP lawmakers have lambasted officials who say that requirement is unnecessarily high — ICE went over that requirement, with an about 35,176 as of Feb. 4, Morton said. ICE views the bed mandate as an average and seeks to maintain that average throughout the course of the period for which Congress funds it, he wrote. He said his agency has maintained a year-to-date 34,000 average, even with the releases.

“As law enforcement operations vary throughout the year, so does the number of ICE detainees,” he wrote.

Although some Republican appropriators have rejected the “average” argument, saying ICE should have at least 34,000 beds at all times, it could be gaining some ground. McCaul’s committee office said he will hold the agency to the standard of maintaining an average.

“Chairman McCaul will continue to conduct oversight on this matter to ensure that ICE maintains the average number of beds mandated by Congress,” an aide said.

Rob Margetta can be reached at rmargetta@cq.com.