Thousands of illegal immigrants ticketed for deportation have been released from federal detention centers in recent weeks, according to a report that came out even as the White House and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano denied any involvement in the policy.
Plans to release illegal immigrants in anticipation of looming budget cuts were announced earlier this week, but the report by The Associated Press detailed the policy had already taken effect and on a much larger scale. Citing federal documents, the agency said more than 2,000 illegal immigrants facing deportation had been released from immigration jails and plans exist to release 3,000 more people by the end of the month.
The newly disclosed figures are significantly higher than what the Obama administration acknowledged this week as a "few hundred" who were released without the White House’s direct knowledge.
On Saturday, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversaw the move, said ICE detention populations ebb and flow on a daily basis with many individuals both coming into and leaving ICE custody.
"Beyond that normal movement, and as fiscal uncertainty remains over the continuing resolution and possible sequestration, ICE reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stay within ICE's current budget and placed several hundred individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention," the statement read. "At this point, we don't anticipate additional releases, but that could change based on sequester. ... All of the individuals placed in less costly monitoring programs remain in removal proceedings. Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety."
On Friday, Napolitano said the decision to release illegal immigrants was made “in the field,” and without her knowledge.
Republicans in Congress, already critical of the plan to release illegal immigrants, demanded details, including the number of illegal immigrants released and the nature of any criminal charges they were facing as part of the deportation process.
"Simply blaming budget reductions as a means to turn a blind eye toward the national security of the American people is a dangerous plan, and one that calls into question the department's preparations for sequestration," wrote two Republican lawmakers, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The budget documents obtained by the AP show that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement released roughly 1,000 illegal immigrants from its jails around the U.S. each week since at least Feb. 15. The agency's field offices have reported more than 2,000 released before intense criticism this week led to a temporary shutdown of the plan.
Napolitano claimed Thursday that she had no part in her department’s decision to release low-risk detainees as a way to deal with the sequestration cuts that take effect today.
“Detainee populations and how that is managed back and forth is really handled by career officials in the field,” she told ABC News.
The states where immigrants were released include Arizona, California, Georgia and Texas.
The White House has said it was not consulted about the releases, and Napolitano has acknowledged they occurred in a manner she regrets.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Wednesday said the government had released "a few hundred" of the roughly 30,000 illegal immigrants held in federal detention pending deportation proceedings. Carney said the immigrants released were "low-risk, noncriminal detainees," and the decision was made by career ICE officials.
As of last week, the agency held an average daily population of 30,733 in its jails. The internal budget documents reviewed by the AP show the Obama administration had intended to reduce those figures to 25,748 by March 31.
The White House did not comment immediately Friday on the higher number of immigrants released.
ICE spokesman Brian Hale said Friday the numbers of immigration detainees fluctuate daily, but he reiterated only several hundred illegal immigrants had been released.
"Beyond that normal movement, and as fiscal uncertainty remains over the continuing resolution and possible sequestration, ICE reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stay within ICE's current budget and placed several hundred individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention," Hale said in a statement. "At this point, we don't anticipate additional releases, but that could change."
The immigrants who were released still eventually face deportation and are required to appear for upcoming court hearings. But they are no longer confined in immigration jails, where advocacy experts say they cost about $164 per day per person. Immigrants who are granted supervised release -- with conditions that can include mandatory check-ins, home visits and GPS devices -- cost the government from 30 cents to $14 a day, according to the National Immigration Forum, a group that advocates on behalf of immigrants.
The senior Homeland Security Department official in charge of arresting and deporting illegal immigrants announced his retirement to his staff on Tuesday, the same day the administration first openly confirmed the release of what it called several hundred immigrants. The executive associate director over ICE enforcement and removal operations, Gary Mead, told his staff he was leaving his job with mixed emotions. A career law enforcement officer, Mead will leave at the end of April.
After AP reported on Mead's retirement, ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said his decision was not related to criticism over the jail releases and said Mead had notified the agency's senior leaders "several weeks ago" that he intended to leave. She also called AP's reporting about Mead's departure "inaccurate and misleading." On Thursday, ICE corrected her statement to say that Mead has notified his bosses "more than a week ago," not several weeks ago.
The later government statement also criticized AP's reporting as "ill-informed, inaccurate information" and complained that AP had failed to contact the agency before publishing what it called a "misguided headline," although the AP had noted its unsuccessful efforts to contact Mead directly by telephone and e-mail.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.