The White House wasn’t asked for advice before U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials release hundreds of immigrants facing deportation, a spokesman said today.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the decision came from career officials “as a result of fiscal uncertainty” stemming from the automatic budget cuts scheduled to take effect March 1 and the need to fund the government after March 27.
The move was made just weeks before the agency’s director of enforcement and removal operations, Gary Mead, is to leave his position. A spokeswoman for ICE, Gillian Christensen, said Mead announced weeks ago that he would retire at the end of April after 40 years in U.S. government service.
Carney said the government released only “low-risk, non-criminal detainees” who will continue to be monitored under less-expensive procedures to stay within the agency’s budget.
“They remain in the process for deportation,” Carney said.
Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, questioned whether any detainees should have been released, calling the decision “indicative of the department’s weak stance on national security.”
McCaul, a Texas Republican, said in a letter to ICE Director John Morton that there should be enough money to keep all of those facing deportation behind bars. He said Congress appropriated funds to detain 34,000 immigrants, and fewer than 31,000 were behind bars as of last week.
The impending budget cuts, known as sequestration, would take $85 billion from federal spending in the final seven months of this fiscal year and $1.2 trillion during the next nine years. Half of the reductions will come from defense spending.
President Barack Obama and U.S. lawmakers have been unable to agree on alternatives to the cuts. Democrats have called for replacing some with higher taxes on the wealthy. House Republicans, who last year voted to offset the defense reductions with cuts to food stamps and other domestic programs, remain opposed to any tax increases.