By Rachelle Younglai
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. immigration agency defended its decision to release hundreds of illegal immigrants from detention because of budget cuts, saying on Thursday that the alternative would have been to reduce smuggling and child pornography investigations.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other government agencies have been forced to reduce spending after $85 billion in automatic budget cuts went into effect this month.
But Republicans said the Obama administration released "criminals" in order to pressure lawmakers into undoing the automatic budget cuts, which were enacted to reduce the country's debt.
"This was an ICE call. The White House did not make this decision," ICE Director John Morton said at a House of Representatives homeland security subcommittee hearing to examine the agency's actions.
Morton said the only way to meet the budget requirements was to release low-risk detainees and noted that it cost roughly $122 per day to keep someone in a detention center compared with about $7 per day to keep someone under surveillance through methods like electronic monitoring devices.
The other option would have been to reduce domestic investigations targeting human smugglers and child pornographers, Morton said.
"We have limited resources," he said.
ICE, which is under the Department of Homeland Security, has released 2,228 illegal immigrants from the detention centers because of the budget constraints.
The agency's mid-February announcement came around the same time Obama administration officials were warning of the dire effects of the spending cuts, including delayed flights, meat shortages and government layoffs.
It also came as Republican lawmakers wrestle with how to deal with the millions of illegal immigrants who are living and working in the United States.
"This looks like this was a way to undermine comprehensive immigration reform," Representative Charlie Dent, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said at the hearing.
The chairman of the subcommittee, John Carter, who is working on a bill with Democrats to overhaul the immigration system, chided Morton for the timing and lack of communication.
"We have to deal with immigration reform issues with the American public," the Texan Republican said, asking Morton how he was supposed to answer questions from constituents about turning criminals loose.
Carter is part of a small group of House Republicans and Democrats working on a broad immigration reform bill. A separate bi-partisan group of eight U.S. senators is trying to craft legislation as well.
The legislation would give the 11 million illegal immigrants a way to obtain legal status and a chance to eventually become U.S. citizens, congressional aides have said.
"This was like throwing a hand grenade in that," Carter said.
(Reporting by Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Fred Barbash and Jim Loney)