PHOENIX -- Under pressure from lawmakers, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has disclosed new details about the criminal backgrounds of some of the approximately 2,200 immigration detainees let out of custody in February in anticipation of spending cuts, revealing that 32 of the 622 convicted criminals released nationwide had multiple felony convictions.
The new details, released in a briefing made to a Capitol Hill investigatory panel, raised more questions about the decision in February by Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials to release 2,226 immigration detainees from facilities in Arizona and several other states in order to slow rising detention costs in the face of $300 million in automatic budget cuts known as the sequester, which kicked in March 1.
During two congressional hearings in March, ICE Director John Morton insisted that only detainees who did not pose a threat to public safety were released and that all remained under supervision.
But information released by DHS officials in response to requests from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations shows that ICE has taken back into custody 58 of the convicted criminals released nationally after a review showed the seriousness of their offenses.
It took DHS officials nearly three months to release details about the criminal backgrounds, and the information was disclosed only after the subcommittee threatened to subpoena DHS officials, according to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking GOP member of the subcommittee, and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman.
McCain, who this year has been leading a bipartisan Senate effort to enact comprehensive immigration-reform legislation, blasted President Barack Obama's administration over the ICE releases and raised questions about Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's role or lack of it.
Napolitano has said she didn't learn about the lower-level decision until after it happened.
In a statement, McCain called the release of convicted criminals "reprehensible" and said it put public safety at risk.
"You should be concerned with people who are guilty of second-degree robbery, DUI, stalking convictions - those kinds of things. They're just released out into the public when they are in this country illegally," McCain said later Thursday in a telephone interview with The Arizona Republic.
McCain also criticized Homeland Security officials for taking so long to provide details about the criminal backgrounds of those who were released.
"There had been repeated requests as to who had been released and why and all that, and they had refused to answer, until Senator Levin and I threatened to subpoena the information," McCain said. "Then, they finally came through."
Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer also has requested information from the DHS about the criminal backgrounds of immigration detainees released in February, saying they posed a threat to public safety.
Matthew Benson, Brewer's spokesman, said she is still waiting for a response. "The administration's actions in releasing thousands of criminal aliens were appalling," Benson said. "But just as appalling is its continued stonewalling of critical information sought by elected leaders like Governor Brewer."
McCain, meanwhile, is calling for disciplinary action against ICE officials responsible for the decision to release the detained immigrants.
"As far as we know, no disciplinary action has been taken against the ICE officials that were responsible for the action," McCain said. "And it still is extremely puzzling that, apparently, the secretary of Homeland Security said she didn't know anything about the decision. Isn't she supposed to?"
ICE officials on Thursday continued to defend the decision to release immigration detainees.
"Every day, career ICE law-enforcement officials must make decisions as to how to best manage the resources provided to them by Congress," Virginia Kice, an ICE spokeswoman, said in a written statement.
"As fiscal uncertainty remained over the continuing resolution, and with the strong possibility of sequestration, ICE officials identified and released detained individuals who posed no significant threat to public safety, were not subject to mandatory detention and who were appropriate candidates for supervised release."
She added, "These decisions were made on a case-by-case basis by career law-enforcement officials in the field in order to ensure that ICE maintained sufficient resources to detain serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety through the end of the continuing resolution."
Of the 2,226 detainees released, 622 had criminal records, according a May 6 letter to McCain and Levin from Nelson Peacock, DHS assistant secretary for legislative affairs.
After a review of the convicted criminals released, ICE officials determined that 32 were classified as Level 1, the highest risk, according to the letter, which McCain's office provided to The Republic.
ICE officials initially said 10 Level 1 detainees had been released and then later lowered the number to eight.
A total of 80 immigration detainees classified as Level 2 were released, according to the letter. That is fewer than the 159 Level 2 offenders ICE initially said were released.
The letter said that 1,604 of the 2,226 immigration detainees released had no known criminal convictions.
With sequestration now in effect, ICE's detention-bed funding has been reduced to $132 million below fiscal 2012 funding, according to ICE officials.
All the released individuals remain in immigration proceedings. Those who have not been taken back into custody are on some form of supervised release, such as bond, an order of recognizance, an order of supervision, telephonic monitoring or GPS monitoring, ICE officials said. Some have also been deported, they said.
Contributing: Arizona Republic reporter Yvonne Wingett Sanchez
Daniel Gonzalez and Dan Nowicki, The Arizona Republic