When federal immigration officials released 2,200 detainees for budget reasons last year, the Obama administration assured the public those let go did not have serious criminal records.
That wasn't the case, according to a new report from USA Today. Records obtained by the media outlet found that some of those freed had faced charges such as kidnapping, sexual assault and homicide.
USA Today obtained a spreadsheet from immigration officials listing the detainees and related crimes. Among those released were a Texas man charged with aggravated kidnapping and sexually assaulting a child and a Miami-based detainee who had been charged with conspiracy to commit homicide. The news outlet was unable to clarify whether the individuals had been convicted or simply charged with crimes.
A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that executed the releases, confirmed to Fusion that not all freed detainees were people charged with minor crimes.
"The discretionary releases made by ICE were of low-level offenders," spokesperson Gillian Christensen said in a statement. "However, the releases involving individuals with more significant criminal histories were, by and large, dictated by special circumstances outside of the agency's control."
The mass release of detainees occurred in February 2013, a week before the federal government prepared to enact steep automatic funding cuts known as "sequestration." Republicans in Congress were outraged to learn that detainees charged with crimes had been set free and accused the Obama administration of using scare tactics to influence public opinion about the impending cuts.
John Morton, then the director of ICE, was called to testify in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives a month later. He said the releases were due to budget constraints and maintained that many of those let go did not require mandatory detention. Morton acknowledged that 30 percent of those released had criminal records, but said they did not pose a threat to public safety.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees ICE, conceded missteps in handling the detainee release. This August, an inspector general report investigating the incident found that senior DHS officials—including Janet Napolitano, then the head of Homeland Security—were not aware of the ICE budget shortfall or plans to release the detainees.
The report also found Congress partly at fault. While ICE is charged with maintaining 34,000 beds for immigrant detainees, Congress only appropriated enough funding for 31,300 beds, forcing the agency to use unreliable discretionary funds to cover the difference.
Congressional Republicans, however, have placed the blame on the president. In light of the report on Thursday by USA Today, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) called for the Senate to hold hearings to further investigate the matter. "Today’s revelations indicate the Obama administration released dangerous criminals into society," he said in a statement, "and then misled Congress and the American people about it."
The controversy comes two weeks before midterm elections. President Obama has vowed to use his executive power after the vote to enact reforms to the immigration system.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.