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Updated Aug 12, 2014 - 4:42 pm

Watchdog: Officials didn't OK immigrant releases

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration wrongly denied for weeks in 2013 that it had released more than 2,000 immigrants from jails because lower-ranking government officials failed to notify the Homeland Security secretary they were letting them go due to budget concerns, according to an oversight report released Tuesday.

The harshly critical, 41-page report from the Homeland Security Department's inspector general also said officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement failed to plan adequately for the rise of immigrant arrests at the Mexican border and didn't track available funds or spending accurately.

The Homeland Security Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment by phone and email from The Associated Press.

Citing internal budget documents, the AP reported on March 1, 2013, that the administration had released more than 2,000 immigrants in the preceding two weeks and planned to release 3,000 more amid the looming budget cuts. The White House and Homeland Security Department for weeks disputed AP's reporting until March 14, when the then-director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, John Morton, acknowledged to Congress during a hearing that agency had actually released 2,228 people from immigration jails, starting Feb. 9, 2013, for what he described as "solely budgetary reasons."

At the time, Morton told lawmakers that the decision to release the immigrants was not discussed in advance with political appointees, including those in the White House and then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. He said the pending automatic cuts known as sequestration was "driving in the background."

The inspector general, John Roth, affirmed Morton's explanation, concluding that senior ICE officials didn't inform Napolitano or the White House about the implications of the agency's budget shortfall, and did not notify Napolitano about their plans to release the immigrants.

Napolitano said days after the AP published its story that the report was "not really accurate" and that it had developed "its own mythology."

"Several hundred are related to sequester, but it wasn't thousands," Napolitano said at the time.

It was not immediately clear why Napolitano did not correct her statements about the accuracy of AP's reporting between March 1 and two weeks later, when Morton acknowledged the releases.

Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona asked the inspector general to investigate the agency's decision to release the immigrants. Roth said that because the releases had occurred the weekend before new budget restrictions were put in place, they generated speculation that the releases were improperly motivated.

Roth concluded that ICE didn't anticipate the consequences of the releases and was unprepared to answer questions from Congress or the press.

Despite the missteps, Roth's report concluded that ICE officials in charge of actually releasing the immigrants "made reasonable decisions given the short timeframe."

Officials with ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations, which is in charge of jailing immigrants facing deportation, repeatedly asked ICE Chief Financial Officer Radha Sekar for budget information in the months leading up to the mass releases but never got it. The result was that ERO officials starting deporting more immigrants to reduce its daily jail population, which led to more spending for charter flights, tickets on commercial flights for immigrants being deported and overtimes costs for ICE officers to escort people back to their home countries.

The inspector general said ICE has yet to improve the communication or budget transparency problems that led to the releases, and he made four recommendations to avoid future problems, including creating a plan to give ICE's removal operations "reliable and transparent funding sources" to manage immigration jail bed space.

In a written response, Sekar said ICE agreed with the recommendations.

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Follow Alicia A. Caldwell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/acaldwellap

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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