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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The release of illegal immigrants from U.S. detention due to budget concerns was undertaken with care to ensure that security was not compromised, the head of the immigration enforcement agency said on Tuesday.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton, at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, defended his agency's decision last month to release 2,228 illegal immigrants from detention centers because of budget constraints. They were placed on alternative supervision such as being required to call in regularly or wear an electronic monitor.
Republicans charged that the release was part of scare tactics used by President Barack Obama's administration over mandatory budget cuts, and they pressed Morton on whether his agency had received any pressure.
Morton repeatedly denied that his agency had spoken with officials from the White House and the Department of Homeland Security about the decision to release the illegal immigrants before it happened.
"From this vantage point it does look like the decision to release detainees was a political determination and not a monetary determination," said Representative Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina.
Mandatory budget cuts government-wide, known as sequestration, began on March 1, and the government has also been operating on a continuing resolution which funds agencies until March 27.
The cuts require a nearly $300 million reduction in the agency's budget over the seven remaining months of the fiscal year, Morton said in testimony to the hearing.
"In reducing detention levels, we took careful steps to ensure that national security and public safety were not compromised by the releases," he said.
Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, said some of the immigrants released had been convicted or charged with theft or simple assault.
"Irresponsible decisions to release detained illegal immigrants unreasonably and unnecessarily put the public at risk," Goodlatte said in his opening statement.
Reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Mohammad Zargham