More than 60 percent of those released from immigration detention centers in Arizona were classified as non-criminal, officials confirmed Friday.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement said 342 illegal immigrants, or about 15 percent of the nationwide total, were released in Arizona in a three-week period starting Feb. 9 due to budget cuts and not for political reasons.
After weeks of denials, the Obama administration acknowledged Thursday that ICE had released 2,228 people from immigration jails.
Recently, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano insisted only a "few hundred" were placed in other methods of supervision, challenging a report by The Associated Press that the agency had released more than 2,000 immigrants in February and planned to release more than 3,000 others this month.
ICE came under criticism after news reports broke that it was releasing large numbers of people from detention, which apparently nobody outside the agency knew about.
Lawmakers from across the country, including Arizona, sent letters to Napolitano demanding answers, and the agency has slowly provided more details on what it called a "unique" operation to stay within budget.
"Contrary to some reports, it didn't include thousands of criminals who pose a threat to public safety," ICE Director John Morton told a congressional panel Thursday.
The immigrants released still are required to appear for upcoming court hearings.
"There's not a mass release of criminals under way," he said. "They are just efforts to live within our budget."
Under sequestration, ICE was forced to cut about $300 million from its budget.
Out of the 10 people released who are considered "Level 1" offenders one was released in Arizona. ICE officials didn't provide the exact offense of the individual released here, but Morton told lawmakers the category includes people convicted of felonies from aggravated assault to financial crimes. Four of those discharged were rearrested after officers found they had violent criminal records.
Morton said this number included an individual who committed the offense in 1979 and a single father with a 5-month old baby.
Every person released involved an officer thoroughly reviewing the case, he said.
Another 159 people nationwide were "Level 2" offenders, which includes multiple drunk-driving or shoplifting offenses. One is back in custody because the person didn't comply with orders of supervision, Morton said. And 460 were "Level 3," which includes simple misdemeanors.
A state-by-state breakdown of those released has not been made public, but Morton said Texas had the largest share. According to ICE, 761 people were released in Texas.
It's not unusual for ICE to release people, said Lindsay Marshall, executive director of the Florence Project, a nonproft that provides free legal aid to those detained by ICE in Arizona.
"What's unusual is the volume of the people they released in a short amount of time," she said.
And it confirms that ICE holds a diverse group of people and not just criminal illegal immigrants who pose a threat to society, she said.
Copyright 2013 - The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson
McClatchy-Tribune News Service