WASHINGTON (AP) -- The senior Homeland Security Department official in charge of arresting and deporting illegal immigrants announced his retirement the same day the agency said that hundreds of people facing deportation had been released from immigration jails due to looming budget cuts, according to a letter obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press. The government said he had told his bosses weeks ago that he planned to retire.
Gary Mead, executive associate director over enforcement and removal operations at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, disclosed his departure in an email to his staff Tuesday afternoon. The announcement of the release of the illegal immigrants had come earlier in the day.
President Barack Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, said Wednesday that the decision to release the immigrants was made without any input from the White House. He described the immigrants as "low-risk, non-criminal detainees."
The announcement that a few hundred illegal immigrants were being released was among the most significant and direct implications described so far by the Obama administration about the pending, automatic budget cuts that will take effect later this week under what is known as sequestration.
Republicans in Congress quickly criticized the decision and pressed the Homeland Security Department for details.
In an email to his staff obtained by the AP, Mead said he was leaving the agency at the end of April "with mixed emotions." He did not say what prompted his departure. Mead did not immediately respond to an email and a telephone call.
A spokeswoman for the agency, Gillian Christensen, said there was no connection between Mead's announcement to his staff and the decision to release the illegal immigrants. She said Mead had told senior leaders in the agency several weeks ago that he planned to retire.
Mead said Tom Homan will succeed him as acting executive associate director.
At the White House, Carney said the decision to release what he described as "a few hundred" of the 30,000 illegal immigrants in federal detention was made by "career officials" at the immigration agency. He said the immigrants who were released were still subject to deportation.
"All of these individuals remain in removal proceedings," Carney said. "Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety."
ICE is required by Congress to maintain 34,000 immigration jail beds. As of last week, the agency held an average daily population of 30,733 in its jails.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned this week that DHS might not be able to afford to maintain those 34,000 jail beds and that mandatory budget cuts would hurt the department's core missions.
"I don't think we can maintain the same level of security at all places around the country with sequester as without sequester," said Napolitano, adding that the impact would be "like a rolling ball. It will keep growing."
According to the National Immigration Forum, it costs the government about $164 a day to keep an illegal immigrant facing deportation jailed. In a report on immigration detention costs last year, the advocacy group said costs for supervised release can range from about 30 cents to $14 a day.
Republican lawmakers have decried the jail releases. The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, sent a letter Wednesday to ICE Director John Morton asking who was released and what was being done to keep track of them.
"This decision reflects the lack of resource prioritization within the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement and is indicative of the department's weak stance on national security," McCaul wrote.