ICE Director John Morton was forced to defend his agency's decision to release thousands of illegal aliens from custody during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday. Morton said he could have requested a reprogramming of department funds from the Appropriations Committee to prevent the release, and he also couldn't say with certainty that the illegal aliens released don't pose a threat to the safety of the American public.
Morton said the release was a direct result of the department facing a 5% cut in its funding because of the budget sequester that went into effect earlier this month. He said the agency was forced to save $300 million, while still trying to maintain an average detention rate of 34,000.
"The reduction was a direct result of ICE's efforts to stay within its budget in light of the continuing resolution and the possibility and now reality of sequester," Morton said.
The purpose of the hearing was to determine whether the agency did indeed release the detained illegal aliens because of the sequester or whether it was part of a greater public relations strategy by the Obama Administration to highlight the effects of the budget sequester. Morton testified that the decision came solely from within ICE.
"It was a decision made by the career officials made within the agency, specifically Mr. Mead and our Chief Financial Officers," Morton said. "Was the decision made by anyone outside of the agency? The answer is categorically no."
Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) asked Morton why he didn't consider tapping into other agency funds to prevent the release of the detainees.
"All the other accounts in ICE carried a balance of $240 million for the year, and $120 million for the past six months," Chairman Goodlatte said. "Additionally, your CFO indicated ICE carried forward $100-120 million in user fee balances. Can you tell me why ICE never submitted a reprogramming request to appropriations? Isn't it true that ICE could have submitted a reprogramming request to pay for the release of these detainees?"
"We can seek reprogramming requirements, that is absolutely true Mr. Chairman," Morton said. "We did not in this instance. I am trying to live within the appropriations that Congress gives us. … We are not going to rob Peter to pay Paul."
"The appropriations committee is very used to dealing with excess expenditures necessitated by changed circumstances and they do respond quickly to those requests," Goodlatte said. "I am pleased that you did acknowledge that you could have dipped into surplus funds from fees or from other funds carried over from other operations within the department rather than releasing criminal aliens onto our streets."
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Id.) questioned Morton about his management of funds, but took a different angle. He said ICE was able to maintain the same levels of detention and deportations with less than funding than during the sequester during Morton's time with the agency.
"Your budget in 2009 was $4.9 billion," Rep. Labrador said. "Your budget in 2010, it was $5.3 billion. Your budget in 2011 was $5.4 billion. And your budget in 2012 was $5.5 billion. So in the last four years, your budget has been raised by at least 10%. Is that correct?"
"That is correct," Morton said.
"You're now telling us that because you have to cut 5% of your budget, you can not do the job you were doing in 2009 and 2010," Rep. Labrador said. "Is that what you're telling us?"
"No," Morton said. "I am telling you that we are operating at an all-time high in both detention and removals."
"But you just testified that in 2009 and 2010 you were detaining and deporting about 400,000 a year," Rep. Labrador said. "You were taking credit, which I think you should for deportations and you had a budget that was actually less than what your sequestration budget is going to be."
"Our removals were the highest ever," Morton said.
"And for the last four years you've averaged 400,000 deportations a year, and you've done it with a budget that was smaller than what we're talking about here," Rep. Labrador said.
According to Morton, four of the 2,228 illegal-alien detainees that were released were level one offenders, meaning they had been charged of or convicted of a felony. House Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) asked Morton why they couldn't find the funding to keep the level one offenders in custody.
"If it's $122 a day to house four level one aggravated felons then releasing them saves you what - $600 a day?" Rep. Gowdy asked.
"Each day, that's right," Morton said.
"You can't find $600 a day anywhere in your budget?" Rep. Gowdy asked.
"We make determination on a case-by-case basis," Morton said.
"Can you find $600 somewhere else in your budget?" Rep. Gowdy asked.
"The question is whether that $600 is well spent on those people or someone else," Morton said. "When it comes to someone who was a 40 year lawful resident…"
"I don't care, was he a level one?" Rep. Gowdy asked.
"He is a level on offender," Morton said.
Rep. Gowdy, like many of the other Committee Members then shifted his line of questioning to whether or not the released illegal aliens could pose a threat to the American people.
"Did you release any recidivous drunk drivers?" Rep. Gowdy asked.
"Yes," Morton said.
"How many?" Rep. Gowdy asked.
"I don't have the exact number, but we have released many individuals that have DUI offenses," Morton said.
"Repeat offender DUI?" Rep. Gowdy asked.
"Repeat offender DUI," Morton said.
Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) asked Morton if any of the released illegal aliens were members of a violent gang.
"I think there are two cases, at least one that I know of, that when we went back and looked at the information there was a gang affiliation," Morton said.
"Do you ask the individuals that you detain whether they are members of a violent gang or not?" Rep. Forbes asked.
"We try wherever we can," Morton said.
"Is that part of your questioning? Do you have that information on the people you released?" Rep. Forbes asked.
"I don't know if we ask each and every person," Morton said.
"So you can't really answer for the 2,228," Rep. Forbes said. "All you can say is that two of these individuals had a known gang affiliation, but you don't know if the other 2,228 had a gang affiliation or not?"
"I can't speak to every individual that we released," Morton said.
"So it's possible that someone who was here illegally, who had been charged or convicted of a crime, and could have been voluntarily part of a violent criminal gang, you wouldn't know that?" Rep. Forbes asked.
"On convictions, yes. But on general gang affiliation, I can't say that we would know," Morton said.
Rep. Lamar Smith asked Morton directly if he thought any of the illegal aliens released could pose a threat to the American people. Morton tried to dodge the answer after Rep. Smith asked in several different ways, so Rep. Smith finally told him what he thought the public perception of the release was.
"Let me answer the question the way I think the American people would answer it," Rep. Smith said. "The American people think you releasing illegal aliens who have committed felonies or multiple misdemeanors is a threat to their safety."