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Obama administration admits number of illegals released was more than 2,000

| Thursday, March 14, 2013, 8:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON — After weeks of denials, the Obama administration acknowledged on Thursday that it had, in fact, released more than 2,000 illegal immigrants from immigration jails for what it called budget concerns during three weeks in February. Four of the most serious offenders have been put back in detention.

The administration had insisted that only a “few hundred” immigrants were released for budgetary reasons, challenging as inaccurate a March 1 report by The Associated Press that the agency had released more than 2,000 immigrants in February and planned to release more than 3,000 others this month. Intense criticism led to a temporary shutdown of the plan.

The director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, John Morton, told a congressional panel that the agency had actually released 2,228 people from immigration jails over the course of three weeks, starting February 9, for what he described as “solely budgetary reasons.” They included 10 people considered the highest level of offender.

After the administration had challenged the AP's reporting, ICE said it didn't know how many people had been released for budget reasons but would review its records.

Morton, who testified with two other agency officials, 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.”

“We were trying to live within the budget that Congress had provided us,” Morton told lawmakers. “This was not a White House call. I take full responsibility.”

The House appropriations subcommittee chairman, Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, pressed Morton about the agency's claims that immigrants were routinely released, and Morton acknowledged that the release of more than 2,000 immigrants was not routine.

“At the time this release started, the president of the United States was going around the country telling people what the pain was going to be from sequester,” Carter said. “That's a fact. That was the atmosphere. It was Chicken Little, the sky is falling, almost.”

Morton told Carter that more immigrants were released in Texas than in any other state but did not name other states where they were released.

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