Looming Cuts Spur Mass Release of Illegal Immigrants

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Federal immigration officials have released hundreds of detainees from immigration detention centers around the country in a highly unusual effort that is intended to save money as automatic budget cuts loom in Washington, officials said Tuesday.

The government has not dropped the deportation cases against the immigrants, however. The detainees have been freed on supervised release while their cases continue in court, officials said.

But the move angered some Republicans, including Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who said the releases were a political gambit by the Obama administration that undermined the continuing negotiations over comprehensive immigration reform and jeopardized public safety.

"It's abhorrent that President Obama is releasing criminals into our communities to promote his political agenda on sequestration," said Mr. Goodlatte, who is running the House hearings on immigration reform. "By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the administration is needlessly endangering American lives."

While administration officials did not explain how they selected detainees for release, they suggested that the population did not include immigrants who were the focus of the administration's stated enforcement priorities, including those convicted of serious crimes.

"Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety," said Gillian M. Christensen, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security.

The releases, which began several days ago and continued on Tuesday, were intended "to make the best use of our limited detention resources in the current fiscal climate," Ms. Christensen said. "As fiscal uncertainty remains over the continuing resolution and possible sequestration, ICE has reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stay within ICE's current budget."

The government-wide budget cuts, known as the sequester, are scheduled to take effect on Friday. Immigration officials declined to say whether they intended to make any further cutbacks in detention programs this week.

The agency, Ms. Christensen added, "is continuing to prosecute their cases in immigration court and, when ordered, will seek their removal from the country."

Officials did not reveal precisely how many detainees were released or where the releases took place, but immigrants' advocates around the country have been reporting that hundreds of detainees were freed in numerous locations, including Hudson County, N.J.; Polk County, Texas; Broward County, Fla.; and New Orleans; and from centers in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and New York.

While immigration officials occasionally free detainees on supervised release, this mass release -- so many in such a short span of time -- appears to be unprecedented in recent memory, immigration advocates said.

Under supervised release, defendants in immigration cases have to adhere to a strict reporting schedule that might include attending appointments at their regional ICE office as well as electronic monitoring, immigration officials said.

Immigrants' advocacy groups, citing the cost of detaining immigrants, have for years argued that the federal government should make greater use of practical and less expensive alternatives to detention for low-risk defendants being held on administrative charges.

The National Immigration Forum estimated last year that it cost the federal government between $122 and $164 per day to hold a detainee in its immigration system. In contrast, the organization said, alternative forms of detention could cost 30 cents to $14 per day per immigrant.

Advocacy groups applauded the releases but pressed the Obama administration to do more, including adhering more closely to its declared enforcement priorities like focusing on serious criminals and those who pose a threat to public safety, rather than immigrants accused of misdemeanors and administrative immigration violations.

"It shouldn't take a manufactured crisis in Washington to prompt our immigration agencies to actually take steps towards using government resources wisely or keeping families together," said Carolina Canizales, a leader of United We Dream, the nation's largest organization of young illegal immigrants.

At a White House news briefing on Monday, Janet Napolitano, Homeland Security secretary, seemed to hint at the move. "All I can say is, look, we're doing our very best to minimize the impacts of sequester," she told reporters. "But there's only so much I can do. I'm supposed to have 34,000 detention beds for immigration. How do I pay for those?"


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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