The administration had insisted that only a "few hundred" immigrants were released for budgetary reasons, challenging as inaccurate a March 1 report by The Associated Press that the agency had released more than 2,000 immigrants in February and planned to release more than 3,000 others this month. Intense criticism led to a temporary shutdown of the plan.
The director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, John Morton, told a congressional panel Thursday that the agency had actually released 2,228 people from immigration jails over the course of three weeks, starting February 9, for what he described as "solely budgetary reasons." They included 10 people considered the highest level of offender.
After the administration had challenged the AP's reporting, ICE said it didn't know how many people had been released for budget reasons but would review its records.
Morton, who testified with two other agency officials, told lawmakers that the decision to release the immigrants was not discussed in advance with political appointees, including those in the White House and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. He said the pending automatic cuts known as sequestration was "driving in the background."
"We were trying to live within the budget that Congress had provided us," Morton told lawmakers. "This was not a White House call. I take full responsibility."
The House appropriations subcommittee chairman, Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, pressed Morton about the agency's claims that immigrants were routinely released, and Morton acknowledged that the release of more than 2,000 immigrants was not routine.
"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.
Morton said that although the most serious offender category can include people convicted of aggravated felonies, many of those released were facing financial crimes. Those released include immigrants who had faced multiple drunken driving offenses, misdemeanor crimes and traffic offenses, Morton said.
The AP, citing internal budget documents, reported exclusively 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. 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. The document was among those reviewed independently by the AP for its story days earlier.
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.