Federal immigration officials have released hundreds of detainees from detention centers around the country in recent days in a highly unusual 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 decision angered many Republicans, including Representative Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, 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.
A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, said the detainees selected for release were “non criminals and other low-risk offenders who do not have serious criminal histories.”
Officials said the releases, which began last week and continued on Tuesday, were a response to the possibility of automatic government wide budget cuts, known as sequestration, which are scheduled to take effect on Friday.
“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 agency’s spokeswoman, Gillian M. Christensen, said in a statement. The agency’s budget for custody operations in the current fiscal year is $2.05 billion, officials said, and as of Saturday, ICE was holding 30,773 people in its detention system.
Immigration officials said Tuesday that they had no plans to release substantially more detainees this week, though they warned that more releases were still possible depending on the outcome of budget negotiations.
They refused to specify exactly how many detainees were released, or where the releases took place. But immigrants’ advocates around the country have reported that detainees were freed in several places, including Hudson County, N.J.; Polk County, Tex.; Broward County, Fla.; New Orleans; and from centers in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and New York.
While immigration officials occasionally free detainees on supervised release, immigration advocates said that the surge of recent releases — so many in such a short span of time — was extraordinary.
Under supervised release, defendants in immigration cases have to adhere to a strict reporting schedule that might include attending appointments at a regional immigration office as well as wearing electronic monitoring bracelets, officials said.
Advocacy groups, citing the cost of detaining immigrants, have for years argued that the federal government should make greater use of less expensive alternatives to detention for low-risk defendants being held on administrative charges.
One such group, the National Immigration Forum, estimated last year that it cost from $122 to $164 a day to hold a detainee in the federal immigration system. In contrast, the organization said, alternative forms of detention could cost from 30 cents to $14 a day per immigrant.
Among those released in the past week was Anthony Orlando Williams, 52, a Jamaican immigrant who spent nearly three years in a detention center in Georgia. “I’m good, man,” he said. “I’m free.”
Human Rights First, another advocacy group in New York, which has been pressing for reform of the immigration detention system, said that 96 percent of immigrants enrolled in ICE’s alternatives-to-detention program attended their final hearing in 2011. That figure was up from the year before, in which 93 percent attended their final court hearings, said the group, citing statistics provided by B.I., a private contractor that provides monitoring and supervision services to ICE.
Immigrants’ advocates applauded the releases but pressed the Obama administration to do more, including adhering more closely to its declared enforcement priorities and leaving alone immigrants accused of low-level crimes 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 group of young illegal immigrants.
But Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is also holding immigration hearings, said the releases “lessened the chances” that legislators might reach a bipartisan accord on comprehensive immigration reform.
“It is clear the administration is using the sequester as a convenient excuse to bow to political pressure from the amnesty groups,” he said. “With this new action, 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.”
Other Republicans, however, shrugged off the releases, saying they expected that the administration would use the excuse of sequestration to take attention-grabbing action and that they were prepared for more in the coming days.
Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.
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