Looming Cuts Spur Mass Release of Illegal Immigrants

Kirk Semple, New York Times, February 26, 2013

In a highly unusual move, federal immigration officials have released hundreds of detainees from immigration detention centers around the country, an effort 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.

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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.

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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.

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