The top U.S. immigration enforcement official acknowledged Thursday that the Obama administration has in fact released thousands of illegal immigrants from local jails over the last month despite prior claims that the release was only in the hundreds.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton, at a House appropriations subcommittee hearing, said the agency released a total of 2,228 illegal immigrants from local jails "throughout the country" between Feb. 9 and March 1 for "solely budgetary reasons."
For the first time, he explained the kinds of detainees that were sprung from local jails -- he said they included detainees held on theft charges, financial criminals and drunken drivers.
"In some cases, multiple DUIs," Morton acknowledged. He also said 10 individuals labeled as "Level 1" offenders -- the most serious classification -- were released, but that four have since been brought back into custody. That category can include assault cases but Morton said the detainees were mostly in for financial offenses.
Morton stressed that the releases were made on a case-by-case basis and not "willy-nilly."
"There are no mass releases of dangerous criminals under way or any plan for the future," he said.
But the subcommittee chairman, Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, claimed the detainees could still pose a "risk" and questioned why ICE didn't seek additional authority to move around its budgeted money.
ICE has claimed that it was operating under a constrained budget -- with a short-term budget expiring at the end of the month and the sequester kicking in March 1.
But Morton's acknowledgement that more than 2,000 were released appeared to conflict with prior claims from the administration, which said it was only releasing hundreds.
The Associated Press first reported March 1 that the administration had released more than 2,000 illegal immigrants since at least Feb. 15 and planned to release 3,000 more in March due to looming budget cuts, but Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said days later that the AP's report was "not really accurate" and that the story had developed "its own mythology."
"Several hundred are related to sequester, but it wasn't thousands," Napolitano said March 4 at a Politico-sponsored event.
On March 5, the House Judiciary Committee publicly released an internal ICE document that it said described the agency's plans to release thousands of illegal immigrants before March 31.
Morton now says multiple factors were driving the release, but it took until now for the agency to provide the number.
Republicans have said the release was part of a campaign by the administration to make budget cuts look as bad as possible.
"At the time this release started, the president of the United States was going around the country telling people what the pain was going to be from sequester," Carter said. "That's a fact. That was the atmosphere. It was Chicken Little, the sky is falling almost."
Morton told Carter that more immigrants were released in Texas than in any other state, but did not name other states where they were released.
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 Associated Press contributed to this report.