Citing the ongoing fiscal pressures, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has released "several hundred" immigrants in deportation proceedings from immigrant detention facilities.
“In order to make the best use of our limited detention resources in the current fiscal climate and to manage our detention population under current congressionally mandated levels, ICE has directed field offices to review the detained population to ensure it is in line with available funding," ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in a statement. "As a result of this review, a number of detained aliens have been released around the country and placed on an appropriate, more cost-effective form of supervised release."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has already suggested that sequestration would impact detention policy. "I'm supposed to have 34,000 detention beds for immigration," she said at a news briefing on Monday. "How do I pay for those?"
ICE says that it’s not dropping its deportation cases against the immigrants who’ve been released: The agency will continue to prosecute their cases in immigration court while they are monitored outside of detention facilities. "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,” said ICE's Christensen. The agency has not provided the specific number of released detainees.
ICE has estimated that detention costs $122 per bed per day and has been under pressure by immigration advocacy and civil-rights groups to rely on cheaper detention alternatives for immigrants in deportation proceedings who did not pose a security threat. The agency says that the detention alternatives being used include electronic ankle-bracelet monitoring, telephone monitoring, and checking in at a local ICE office at scheduled times.
Under the current administration, both undocumented immigrants and non-permanent legal residents have been placed into detention in record numbers as Obama has ramped up the government's deportation efforts. While the Obama administration has vowed to focus on deporting criminal immigrants who posed a threat to public safety, immigration officials also planned to focus more on undocumented immigrants who've committed low-level offenses to meet criminal deportation targets, USA Today reported this month.
Immigration advocates welcomed the news, having long been frustrated with a detention policy they consider draconian and wasteful.
"There are some folks in detention right now who shouldn't be there. We do know that administration has treated driving without a license as if it's been a heinous crime. They sometimes detain asylum seekers," says Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America's Voice. "There are other ways to ensure people show up for immigration hearing that are much more cost-effective."
But the timing has struck both critics and supporters of the move as unusual, as the sequester won't even take effect until March 1. Doris Meissner, Clinton's former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, says it's unclear whether the decision is intended to show "how damaging sequestration is" — or whether it's intended to be a constructive policy shift meant to acknowledge "the fact that a lot of people subject to deportation aren't hardened criminals."
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which promotes more restricted immigration, believes that the decision in intended to do both. For conservatives, "it's a scare tactic — 'Look, we're going to release illegal aliens, they're coming for your family!'" he says. At the same time, it's a concession to pro-immigration advocates "that's objecting to the very idea of deporting aliens," he concludes. "It's a twofer."
*Update: The post has been updated with new details from ICE about the number of immigrants released and the alternatives the agency is using to monitor them.