Alan Gomez, USA TODAY5:31p.m. EST February 26, 2013
Their deportation cases are not being dropped, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The move is in response to looming 'fiscal uncertainty' over Friday's sequestration deadline.
(Photo: Mark Avery, AP file)
Worries over sequestration cuts prompted the mass release, ICE says
Congressman calls decision "abhorrent" and says President Obama is playing politics
ICE has the ability to hold 34,000 people in custody
Republicans on Tuesday denounced the release of hundreds of illegal immigrants from federal detention centers as an attempt to frighten Americans into supporting President Obama's budget spending demands.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee,said it was "abhorrent" that Obama would release lawbreakers "to promote his political agenda on sequestration." He suggested the release was merely a way to pressure Republicans to vote his way.
"By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the administration is needlessly endangering American lives," Goodlatte said. "It also undermines our efforts to come together with the Administration and reform our nation's immigration laws."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement press secretary Barbara Gonzalez said the agency is not dropping deportation proceedings against "several hundred cases" of detainees who have been released. But because of the "fiscal uncertainty" hovering over the federal government, she said it was necessary to release them "to ensure detention levels stay within ICE's current budget."
"Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety," she said.
The uncertainty Gonzalez referred to is the $87 billion in automatic spending cuts due to go into effect Friday. Known as sequestration, the spending cuts are part of a 10-year, $1.2 trillion automatic decrease in federal spending put into effect by Congress and agreed to by Obama during negotiations to raise the federal debt ceiling.
Obama is demanding tax hikes to avoid sequestration. Republicans are generally in favor of cutting the budget but say sequestration hits the Defense Department too heavily, endangering national security. Obama has been denouncing the GOP this week for not being willing to raise taxes as well as cut spending.
The move comes as Democrats and Republicans in Congress are negotiating over an immigration bill that could put the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. Republicans insist that the border must be secured and immigration laws must be tightened before any such path is considered. Some say that the ICE release threatens to undermine negotiations to reform the nation's immigration laws.
"The administration has further demonstrated that it has no commitment to enforcing the law and cannot be trusted to deliver on any future promises of enforcement," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee that will handle an immigration bill.
Advocates for illegal immigrants say the mass release shows that many of those incarcerated in ICE facilities don't need to be there.
Carlos Garcia, executive director of the Arizona-based Puente Human Rights Movement, said they have long argued that people facing deportation proceedings should not be held in custody - apart from their families - while they endure long waits to have their cases decided.
"They shouldn't stop at releasing hundreds," Garcia said. "They should close the entire unnecessary immigration detention system."
ICE officials say the average daily population was about 30,773 people as of Feb. 23.
People released from custody can be placed in a variety of supervised release programs, according to ICE. They can be fitted with a non-removable ankle brace that monitors their whereabouts electronically. They can also be required to show up at an ICE office at regular intervals, or routinely call ICE officials to update them on their status.
The announcement came on the same day that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned that the sequester cuts would affect "all core missions" of the department, including the loss of 5,000 border agents.