'Free Pass'? Lawmakers say administration flouting law by releasing asylum seekers

Republican lawmakers on Tuesday accused the Obama administration of flouting the law by releasing asylum seekers into the community while their cases are being heard, on the heels of a controversial new directive that raised security concerns about the asylum system.

"It is apparent that the rule of law is being ignored," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said Tuesday, speaking generally about the asylum system.

Lawmakers, though, specifically cited a newly uncovered Immigration and Customs Enforcement document that showed thousands of asylum seekers were released while awaiting a decision. The document, obtained and reviewed by FoxNews.com, showed that in fiscal 2012, just 2,508 of the more than 24,000 asylum seekers were kept in custody.

Goodlatte, in a written statement, argued that the administration is violating laws that "require detaining certain individuals seeking asylum."

"These laws are in place to allow immigration authorities to expeditiously determine whether the individual in question is truly facing persecution or trying to game the system, and to prevent bad actors from being released into our communities," he said. "Because our immigration laws are so loosely enforced by the Obama administration, we should not be surprised to see so much fraud in the system."

The ICE document showed that a total of 22,000 were released that year, though a few thousand were actually deported and a small percentage had their asylum requests granted. But thousands more were released on bond, released under supervision, or released under some other status. The document also indicates that officials may have lost track of some asylum seekers. Several hundred individuals are listed in a category that includes people who escaped.

The cases are scattered all over the country, but concentrated in cities near the southern border, like Phoenix and San Antonio.

More asylum seekers have been released following a 2009 ICE directive encouraging officials to not detain those who claim to face a "credible fear" of harm in their home countries, provided they present "neither a flight risk nor danger to the community."

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies with the Center for Immigration Studies, acknowledged the law allows certain individuals to be released on a case-by-case basis but said the administration has broadly interpreted those provisions.

"This is another example of them abusing discretion that's given to them under the law, that's supposed to be used very rarely," she said. Vaughan said CIS' own estimates show that many asylum seekers don't show up for hearings after they've been released, raising concern that they could drop off the map.

The asylum report comes after the Obama administration last week unilaterally eased restrictions on asylum and refugee-status seekers with loose or incidental ties to terror and insurgent groups.

The change was approved by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Secretary of State John Kerry. It would allow some individuals who provided "limited material support" to terror groups to be considered for entry into the U.S.

Supporters of the change, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., argued that the current ban on anyone who has ever aided terrorists has unfairly blocked thousands of refugees.

A Department of Homeland Security official said these individuals have been "adversely affected by the broad terrorism bars of" the law, and offered several examples of how the change might help otherwise innocent refugees -- including a restaurant owner who served food to an opposition group or a Syrian refugee who paid an opposition group to get out of the country.

But Republican lawmakers said the change raises security concerns, and cited a separate 2009 report that took a look at 2005 cases and found up to 70 percent of them showed signs of possible fraud.

"An overwhelming amount of fraud exists in the process," Goodlatte said Tuesday, claiming many individuals are seeking a "free pass."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., though, downplayed the findings given how dated they are, and said it's a "gross mischaracterization" to say the system is rife with fraud.

FoxNews.com's Judson Berger contributed to this report.