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Official: Release of detained immigrants 'just efforts to live within our budget'

The head of the nation’s immigration enforcement agency said Tuesday that the decision to release over two thousand detained illegal immigrants was done for budgetary reasons alone and independent of political pressure, pushing back against critics who claim the Obama administration publicized the release of criminals to highlight the consequences of budget sequestration.

“There are no mass releases of dangerous criminals underway or any plan for the future, just efforts to live within our budget,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.

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Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee March 19, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Morton, who was quizzed by another House committee last week, said that only four of the released detainees are “Level One” criminals -- those who pose the highest level of threat – while over 70 percent of the 2,228 individuals released have no criminal record at all. All of the released detainees are still in proceedings for removal from the United States, he added.

Some Republicans have accused the agency of allowing the releases to take place for political reasons after automatic budget sequestration cuts slashed the agency budget by about $300 million. 

Morton said Tuesday that the cuts to detention levels were required because he did not want to “rob Peter to pay Paul” within ICE’s reduced budget, testifying that the decision was made by ICE officials without prior communication with Department of Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano.

“I am trying to live within the appropriations that Congress gives us,” he said.

At Tuesday's House Judiciary Committee hearing, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., engages in a tense exchange with ICE Director John Morton about the release of illegal immigrants from detention.

That explanation didn’t satisfy Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.

“I don’t want Peter or Paul to rob one of our fellow citizens because you guessed wrong on who to release,” Gowdy replied.

While Morton, who has served as the head of ICE since 2009, mostly got a friendly reception from Democrats, he was the target of tough words from Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a congressional leader on the push for comprehensive immigration reform and a critic of the Obama administration’s deportation policy.

“The fact is, you’ll deport 1400 people today, you’ll deport 1400 people tomorrow and the next day and the next day until we do comprehensive immigration reform,” Gutierrez told Morton, citing record deportation numbers during the ICE director’s tenure. “Two hundred and fifty to 300 American citizen children are going to be left today -- because of your actions and those in your department – without a mom or a dad.”