WASHINGTON — More than 2,000 immigrants facing deportation in 2013 were released strictly for budget reasons by immigration agency officials who kept the homeland security secretary in the dark about the plan, according to a federal watchdog's report.
This lack of communication led the Obama administration to wrongly deny for weeks that 2,228 immigrants facing deportation had been released, according to the report Tuesday from the Homeland Security Department's inspector general.
It also said officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not adequately plan for the increase in immigrant arrests at the Mexican border and did not track available funds or spending accurately.
Spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said Wednesday that the agency "is committed to addressing the issues identified in the report and has already begun developing plans of action."
Citing internal budget documents, The Associated Press reported on March 1, 2013, that the administration had released more than 2,000 immigrants in the preceding two weeks and planned to release 3,000 more amid the looming budget cuts.
The White House and the Homeland Security Department disputed AP's reporting until March 14, when the then-ICE director, John Morton, acknowledged to Congress during a hearing that the agency had released 2,228 people from immigration jails, starting that Feb. 9, for what he described as "solely budgetary reasons."
At the time, Morton told lawmakers that the decision to release the immigrants was not discussed in advance with political appointees, including those in the White House and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. He said the pending automatic cuts known as sequestration were "driving in the background."
The inspector general, John Roth, confirmed Morton's explanation, concluding that senior ICE officials did not inform Napolitano or the White House about the implications of the agency's budget shortfall and did not notify Napolitano about their plans to release the immigrants.
Napolitano said days after the AP published its story that the report was "not really accurate" and that it had developed "its own mythology."
"Several hundred are related to sequester, but it wasn't thousands," Napolitano said at the time.
It was not immediately clear why Napolitano did not correct her statements about the accuracy of AP's reporting between March 1 and two weeks later, when Morton acknowledged the releases.
Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona asked the inspector general to investigate the decision to release the immigrants. Roth said that because the releases had occurred the weekend before new budget restrictions were put in place, they generated speculation that the releases were improperly motivated.
The 2013 releases drew sharp criticism from Republican lawmakers, who have said the administration has not done enough to address border security and was not properly enforcing immigration law.
Data published by the government in May of this year revealed that the Homeland Security Department released 36,007 convicted criminal immigrants in 2013 who are facing deportation. That total includes those accounting for 193 homicide and 426 sexual assault convictions. The immigrants nearly all still face deportation and are required to check in with immigration authorities while their deportation cases are pending.
In his report, Roth concluded that ICE officials didn't anticipate the consequences of the 2013 budget-related releases and were unprepared to answer questions from Congress or the media.
Despite the missteps, Roth's report concluded that ICE officials in charge of actually releasing the immigrants "made reasonable decisions given the short time frame."
Follow Alicia A. Caldwell on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/acaldwellap