POLITICS
03/19/2013 06:38 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

ICE Director Defends Decision To Release Detained Immigrants

Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton attempted on Tuesday to do damage control after the controversial release of 2,000 immigrants from detention, insisting to skeptical House Republicans that the move would not endanger the public.

In an appearance before the House Judiciary Commitee, Morton was adamant that the releases stemmed from the 5 percent budget reduction his agency faced due to across-the-board federal spending cuts, noting that ICE's "largest appropriation of $2 billion is for custody operations."

"Listen, I understand where some of the concerns come from. I understand that people wonder about some of the releases," Morton said. "Recognize that we are dealing in an extraordinary circumstance."

In his opening statement, Morton testified that ICE "took careful steps to ensure that national security and public safety were not compromised by the releases."

Given the $300 million dollars that will be cut from ICE's budget in the next seven months of the fiscal year, Morton said it was not feasible to detain thousands of non-criminal immigrants at a cost of $122 per day each.

"I am trying to live within the appropriations that Congress gives us," Morton said while defending ICE's release decision -- a determination that was made without the White House's or the Department of Homeland Security's input, Morton said.

"The agency is between a rock and a hard place," he added later.

House Republicans were hesitant to accept Morton's explanation. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) told Morton that he thought the releases were part of a "sequester campaign" that the Obama administration was pursuing "to get the public fired up that mayhem is upon us."

"From this vantage point, it does look like the decision to release detainees was a political determination and not a monetary determination," Gowdy said during a testy exchange with Morton.

When Morton said he "did not want to rob Peter to pay Paul" by cutting vital parts of his department, Gowdy turned those words around.

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

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the budget cuts affecting ICE by an order of magnitude. The agency is set to reduce spending by $300 million, not $300 billion.

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