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Facing sequester, U.S. released 600 illegal immigrants with criminal records

U.S. immigration officials released more than 600 undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions while the government was bracing for across-the-board spending cuts in 2013, according to a report from the Department of Homeland Security inspector general.

The watchdog determined that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s chief financial office decided to release thousands of detained immigrants in February 2013, hoping to cover part of an expected shortfall with a “sharp and immediate reduction in detention bed space.”

Illegal immigrants sit in the back of patrol truck after being detained on July 24. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The inspector general said ICE knowingly released immigrants with criminal convictions, but continued to detain those it considered to be dangerous to the community. Federal law requires the agency to detain undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions.

ICE leadership did not inform the Department of Homeland Security or the White House about its expected budget issues and did not notify the secretary of Homeland Security about plans for releasing immigrants as a remedy, according to the report, which was published last week.

Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) on Tuesday blasted the agency for its actions, echoing recent GOP skepticism over President Obama’s willingness to enforce the nation’s immigration laws.

“This report confirms the Obama administration’s lack of coherent leadership on immigration policy,” McCain said. “The safety of our border communities shouldn’t be put at risk because ICE officials decide to release detainees — many with criminal records — in order to solve their budget problems without waiting to see if they could obtain more funding.”

Coburn said the report provides “more evidence that our nation’s immigration laws are being flagrantly disregarded.”

Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) noted that ICE’s funding was stretched thin during the sequester period, but he said the agency needs to be prepared for carrying out its responsibilities “despite unpredictable budget restraints.”

“Unfortunately, Congress’ inability to come to an agreement on a long-term budget or even short-term emergency funding makes this mission increasingly difficult and jeopardizes the critical operations of nearly every agency, including ICE,” he said.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

The controversial decision to release detainees came as federal agencies worked out strategies for managing deep budget cuts known as the sequester, which took effect in March 2013.

ICE is required by statute to hold 34,000 detainees, but congressional funding only covered about 31,300 of the required beds, according to the report. As sequestration approached, the agency was dealing with a recent 66 percent increase in the number of apprehensions at the Southwest border.

RELATED: Obama aides were warned of brewing border crisis

ICE realized in January 2013 that it would likely face a budget shortfall, but officials assumed that the agency could manage the situation by reducing the number of detained immigrants, according to the report. The inspector general said ICE officers “reviewed their own detained alien dockets to determine the best candidates for release.”

ICE has still not come up with a plan for effectively managing its detention budget, according to the report. The inspector general recommended that the agency “develop a transparent budget process, delegate detention management functions to field offices and engage Congress to fund detention bed space full with multiple year or no year appropriations.”

ICE agreed with the recommendations and said it took steps to improve the accuracy of its financial data for detention spaces, such as by implementing measures to identify how much money is available for each facility. The agency also said it will develop a plan to improve transparency with tracking and reporting ICE spending, in addition to providing more detailed reports to the White House and Congress.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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