The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency says it has released hundreds of detained immigrants in an effort to save money ahead of potential government budget cuts.
Agency spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said Tuesday the agency ordered field officers to examine the number of immigrants in detention facilities to make sure it’s in line with available funding.
“Over the last week, ICE has reviewed several hundred cases and placed these individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention,” she said. “All of these individuals remain in removal proceedings. Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety.”
The agency is not providing specifics about the number of detainees being released from prisons, or why, where or how long they have been held.
Immigration advocacy groups say they are getting calls from contacts in Texas, Arizona and California, states with large Hispanic populations along the border with Mexico.
Andrea Black, executive director of the Detention Watch Network, said she is encouraged by the news.
“We feel like ICE actually needed to release these people a long time ago,” she said. “We think this is a good opportunity for the government to review its priorities and stop using a political calculus to release detainees.”
Reforming U.S. immigration policy and balancing the budget are two of the most controversial issues facing President Barack Obama, who is under pressure to please both conservative and liberal lawmakers and voters. The two issues collided this week with the the immigration agency’s decision to review its detainees.
Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee, called the review an abhorrent political maneuver by President Obama to promote his economic agenda.
“By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the administration is needlessly endangering American lives. It also undermines our efforts to come together with the administration and reform our nation’s immigration laws,” Goodlatte said in a statement.
The immigration agency is continuing to prosecute the cases in immigration court and, when ordered, will seek the defendants’ deportation from the United States, according to Ms. Christensen.
Ms. Black of Detention Watch Network acknowledged the review might be a political stunt, but she dismissed the prospect it will endanger the public.
“It can sound really scary, ‘release to the streets,’ but that’s not the case,” she said, adding that many of the detainees are returning to their families or working with community organizations to reintegrate into society.
Carolina Canizales, coordinator of United We Dream’s national END our Pain initiative, said the newly released immigrants should not be feared.
“Low-priority individuals, people who pose absolutely no risk or danger to society, but rather are upstanding members of their communities and families, should not have been locked up to begin with,” she said.
A University of Texas graduate and an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, Ms. Canizales said it should not take a manufactured crisis in Washington to prompt U.S. immigration agencies to “take steps towards using government resources wisely or keeping families together,” adding that now is the time for real immigration reform.
Members of Congress are cobbling together an immigration reform bill they hope to present for consideration next month. Until then, the federal budget crunch is a more immediate concern.
Friday, spending cuts known as sequestration will take effect unless U.S. lawmakers achieve a breakthrough in talks on how to reduce the $16 trillion national debt. The automatic spending cuts will affect government agencies and programs across the country, amounting to $1.2 trillion in savings over a decade.
Ms. Christensen did not say how much money the agency may be saving by releasing detainees, but National Immigration Forum officials say detaining an immigrant costs between $122 and $164 per day.
The group says alternative forms of detention, like telephonic and in-person reporting, curfews, and home visits, could cost between 30 cents and $14 per day per detainee.