WASHINGTON - The White House worked Wednesday to distance itself from the recent release of illegal immigrants from federal custody, a move officials at the Department of Homeland Security suggested was necessary given looming budget cuts.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the decision to release hundreds of low-level, non-criminal detainees from across the country was made by "career officials at ICE" to ensure that Immigration and Customs Enforcement stayed within budget while continuing to monitor and seek the deportation of every individual released.
The release came "as a result of fiscal uncertainty over the continuing resolution, as well as possible sequester," Carney said. "When it comes to border security, I think (Homeland Security) Secretary (Janet) Napolitano made clear that we should be building on the progress we've made, but unfortunately, we're talking about sequestration."
Also Wednesday, ICE disputed reports that Gary Mead, who oversees enforcement and removal operations at the agency, had announced his resignation in the wake of the release. Spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said Mead had long ago planned to retire this spring.
"As planned, and as shared with ICE staff weeks ago, Mr. Mead will retire at the end of April," Christensen wrote in an email.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Mead shared his resignation with staff in an email just hours after immigration advocates reported seeing groups of detainees leaving detention centers in Texas, Florida and Louisiana.
Christensen called the AP report "inaccurate and misleading." Mead gave his resignation to ICE senior leadership several weeks ago, after serving in government for 40 years and with Immigration and Customs Enforcement for six, Christensen said.
Christensen did not respond to a request for Mead's original letter of resignation, as well as additional details on the detainees released.
Several Republican lawmakers bristled at the mass releases. While ICE is required by Congress to maintain 34,000 detention beds, the agency reported filling only 30,773 spaces last week, according to a letter sent to ICE's director on Wednesday by Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee.
In the letter, McCaul implored the agency to share more details of the releases, including how many people were let go and what monitoring and tracking actions Homeland Security is taking for each one.
"This decision reflects the lack of resource prioritization within the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement and is indicative of the Department's weak stance on national security," McCaul wrote.
Agustin Morales was among the dozens of detainees released in the early hours of Tuesday morning from Broward Transitional Center in Florida. Morales, who had been a low-priority detainee for nearly 10 months, said a guard came to his room Monday night and brought him to an office to ask a few questions about his record.
After Morales confirmed he lived in Naples, Fla., and had legal family members to meet him at the detention center, he was processed and released about 1 a.m. Tuesday, he recalled. He was not told why about 100 people were released from the same center, but he said he thought officials made decisions based on detainees' records.
Morales said he has to return to check in with ICE this week and once more next month, but he doesn't know what comes next.
"I tried to prove many things that I can be eligible to be out and be in this country and they don't let me," Morales said. "I think God is the one who got me released. He's the one who everything is through."
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