By Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A government agency caught in a political firestorm for releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants from detention because of budget concerns said on Thursday the cost of holding someone was more than six times that of alternative supervision methods.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has been sharply criticized by some Republicans in Congress for releasing "several hundred" illegal immigrants ahead of mandatory "sequestration" cuts across the government that become effective on Friday.
Some Republican critics see the move as a political ploy by President Barack Obama's administration to try to increase public anxiety over the coming budget cuts.
ICE said it reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stayed within its current budget, and over the past week placed several hundred illegal immigrants under methods of supervision less costly than detention.
The current average daily cost of detention per person per day is $119, compared with 17 cents to $17.78 per person per day for alternate methods such as requiring scheduled visits with a caseworker or electronic monitoring, an ICE official told Reuters.
"Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety," the official said on condition of anonymity.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she wished the decision by ICE officials to release low-risk illegal immigrants from detention had not been done so suddenly.
"Do I wish that this all hadn't been done all of a sudden and so that people weren't surprised by it? Of course," Napolitano said in an interview with "ABC World News." ICE is under the Department of Homeland Security.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas, sent a letter this week demanding details about the release from ICE Director John Morton.
McCaul spoke with Morton on Thursday and received assurances the director would respond to his letter, and they plan to discuss the agency's answers in person, a committee aide said.
ICE has not publicly given the total number of immigrants released from detention in the past week because of budget concerns. But after a law enforcement official in Arizona said more than 500 were released there, ICE said the actual number of immigrants released was 303 since February 21 from four Arizona facilities and that 2,280 remained in custody in that state.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)