WASHINGTON - The White House worked Wednesday to distance itself from the recent release of illegal immigrants from federal custody, a move officials at the Department of Homeland Security suggested was necessary given looming budget cuts.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the decision to release hundreds of low-level, noncriminal detainees from across the country was made by "career officials at ICE" to ensure that Immigration and Customs Enforcement stayed within budget.
The release came "as a result of fiscal uncertainty over the continuing resolution, as well as possible sequester," Carney said. "When it comes to border security, I think (Homeland Security) Secretary (Janet) Napolitano made clear that we should be building on the progress we've made, but unfortunately, we're talking about sequestration."
Also Wednesday, ICE disputed reports that Gary Mead, who oversees enforcement and removal operations at the agency, had announced his resignation in the wake of the release. Spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said Mead had long planned to retire this spring.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Mead shared his resignation with staffers in an email just hours after immigration advocates reported seeing groups of detainees leaving detention centers in Texas, Florida and Louisiana.
Christensen called the AP report "inaccurate."
Several Republican lawmakers bristled at the mass releases. ICE is required by Congress to maintain 34,000 detention beds, and reported filling only 30,773 spaces last week, according to a letter sent to ICE's director on Wednesday by Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
McCaul asked the agency to share more details of the releases, including how many people were let go and what monitoring and tracking actions Homeland Security is taking for each one.
"This decision reflects the lack of resource prioritization within the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement and is indicative of the Department's weak stance on national security," McCaul wrote.