PHOENIX -- ICE Director John Morton’s testimony to the House Judiciary Committee came just days after he told Congress that his agency had released 2,228 immigrants last month due to budget reasons. In Tuesday’s hearing, more details came to light about those released.
Morton said ICE has funding to maintain 34,000 detention beds to hold immigrants awaiting deportation proceedings. He said because ICE had detained more than 34,000 immigrants late in 2012, to stay within budget, his agency had to reduce detention levels in February. Furthermore, the agency is subject to $300 million in automatic cuts due to sequestration..
Initially, ICE suggested “several hundred” detainees were released nationwide due to sequestration, far fewer than the number Morton revealed last week during a hearing. Of those, Morton said 70 percent had no criminal record, and the remaining 30 percent were convicted of non-violent offenses.
In Tuesday's hearing, Republicans again chastised Morton for discharging immigrants with criminal records, including four so-called “Level 1” offenders, who have the most serious criminal histories.
“You could have found $600 to keep these Level 1 violators from being released, and don’t act like you could not have,” Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said to Morton in a reprimanding tone, referring to the daily cost to detain those four immigrants.
Morton gave more details about a Level 1 detainee set free in Arizona who has previous drug and theft offenses.
“At first glance you might say, 'OK what is ICE doing?'” Morton said. “That individual is 68 years old, they are a lawful permanent resident, and have been a lawful permanent resident for 44 years. And an immigration judge made a determination that that individual is not a danger to the community.”
According to ICE, that particular individual was a Bolivian national who had previously been removed from the U.S. in 2008 because of his convictions. He was taken into ICE custody when he applied to be readmitted into the country in Nogales, Ariz. almost two years later. He is currently being supervised by an electronic ankle bracelet.
Morton said initially eight Level 1 detainees were released as part of sequestration releases, but four were returned to custody upon closer inspection. He said several more Level 2 offenders had also been returned to custody after further review.
Other representatives took a different tact, questioning Morton why some non-criminal, non-violent immigrants were held in detention to begin with.
“It looks to me like maybe there is an overuse of detention by this administration,” said Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) to Morton. “Would you agree?”
Morton did not answer directly.
Congress mandates that ICE must maintain 34,000 detention beds.
At a different point in Morton’s testimony he said the vast majority of immigrants going through deportation proceedings are not held in custody. Instead they are released on bond or alternatives to detention.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) attempted to undermine some of the criticism levied by Republicans at ICE about the public safety risks of releasing these detainees.
“Any evidence that a crime wave was unleashed on the people of Phoenix, Arizona?” Hakeem asked Morton, referring to 342 detainees released in the state.
“There is no indication of a crime wave, we are obviously going to pay attention to every single case,” Morton responded. “If a case needs to have a different outcome we will make that outcome.”
Not everyone was satisfied, however, with Morton’s testimony.
Afterward the committee chair, Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), issued a statement that said Morton’s testimony did not add up, since sequestration cuts mandated a 5 percent cut to ICE but the agency released more than 5 percent of detainees in its custody.
“These facts make it appear that the decision to release more than 600 convicted criminals and others facing charges into our communities was more of a political calculation than a budgetary necessity,” the statement read.