Story highlights

Several House Republicans question motive behind immigrant detainees' release

Release was politically -- not financially -- motivated, Judiciary Committee members say

Director of immigration says 70% of those released have no criminal history

Agency is "trying to live within our budget," ICE director tells committee

(CNN) —  

Several House Republicans said Tuesday they believe the February release of more than 2,000 immigration detainees from jail was motivated by politics rather than forced budget cuts.

“From this vantage point, it does look like the decision to release detainees was a political determination and not a monetary determination,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina. “It appears to me that the release of detainees was part of a sequester campaign that included the fictional firing of teachers, the closing of the White House for student tours, the displacement of meat inspectors and now we’re gonna release aggravated felons – some aggravated felons – onto the street.”

Gowdy was one of several Republicans who harshly criticized the release of 2,228 people from immigration detention during a combative Judiciary Committee hearing with John Morton, the director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Negotiators close to immigration deal in Congress

Morton said 70 percent of those released had no criminal record at all and that more than 600 had criminal records mostly for non-violent offenses and did not pose a danger. Morton said a couple of people in the worst offender category were mistakenly released but have been returned to custody. He said others in that category pose no danger, including one man whose conviction occurred 40 years ago.

“There are no mass releases of dangerous criminals under way, just efforts to live within our budget,” Morton said. He said all of the detainees were kept under another form of supervision and that their deportation proceedings will continue.

Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte said Morton should have found other ways to cut the budget. “Irresponsible decisions to release detained illegal immigrants unreasonably and unnecessarily put the public at risk,” Goodlatte said.

Immigration detainee release under fire

Goodlatte, of Virginia, asked whether Morton had sought permission to find cuts from other areas instead of releasing detainees. Morton said he had not. “Our single largest appropriation is for custody operations, and we were trying to live within our budget,” Morton said.

Morton said he did “not want to rob Peter to pay Paul” and cut from other key programs, including border operations and efforts to prevent child exploitation. The ICE director also said he did not want to furlough employees during the forced spending cuts.

Released detainees not a public safety threat, official says