Most of the illegal immigrant criminals Homeland Security officials released from custody last year were discretionary, meaning the department could have kept them in detention but chose instead to let them onto the streets as their deportation cases moved through the system, according to new numbers from Congress.

Some of those released were the worst of the worst — more than 3,700 “Threat Level 1” criminals, who are deemed the top priority for deportation, were still released out into the community even as they waited for their immigration cases to be heard.

Homeland Security officials have implied their hands are tied by court rulings in many cases, but the numbers, obtained by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, showed 57 percent of the criminals released were by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s own choice, and they could have been kept instead.

“Put aside the spin, and the fact is that over 17,000 of the criminal aliens released last year were released due to ICE discretion, representing 57 percent of the releases,” said Mr. Goodlatte. “The Obama administration’s lax enforcement policies are reckless and needlessly endanger our communities.”

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