The U.S. government has released more than 2,200 illegal immigrants from detention facilities due to forced spending cuts that have impacted the operations of federal agencies across the board.
John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday that those who have been released do not pose a "significant threat to public safety" and continue to be monitored.
Morton said his budget has been cut by 5% or $300 million as a result of the congressionally-mandated cuts that took effect March 1 and are known as sequester.
"While much has been made of ICE's recent reduction in detention levels, the truth is the reduction was a direct result of ICE's efforts to stay within its budget in light of the continuing resolution and the possibility, now reality, of sequester," he said.
The agency has funding to hold approximately 34,000 illegal immigrants in 250 facilities, Morton said, adding that the decision was made to release detainees rather than furlough officers.
Republicans have criticized the decision and some allege the Obama administration is playing politics with efforts to overhaul U.S. immigration policy -- a priority of both parties, but viewed by some as a more pressing political concern for Republicans.
"I am deeply concerned that at a time of comprehensive immigration reform, the optics of this are just terrible," said Rep. Charles Dent of Pennsylvania.
"This looks like it might have been an attempt to undermine comprehensive immigration reform. ... This should have been handled in a much better way. I am disappointed we are having this discussion," Dent said.
The $85 billion sequester amounts to roughly 9% for a broad range of non-defense programs and 13% for the Pentagon over the rest of the fiscal year, which ends on September 30.
Federal agencies have announced furloughs and other steps to meet the new budget targets.
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