The Washington Post

As sequester nears, immigration detainees are released

The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it had released hundreds of illegal immigrants held in detention facilities, saying it could no longer afford to house them because of across-the-board cuts that are set to start taking effect Friday.

Federal authorities said that the detainees continue to face immigration charges, that they are being monitored and that violent offenders will not be let go.

The unusual action came as much of Washington plotted strategy for managing the deep cuts, known as sequestration, and for winning the political battle over them.

President Obama flew to Newport News to highlight the effect the reductions would have on the defense industry, saying they would harm a facility that builds nuclear submarines. Other top administration officials joined in, with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. bluntly declaring in a speech, “The American people are going to be less safe.”

Politically, the president seemed to be trying to cause a split between Republican lawmakers who are set against raising taxes as part of a compromise to avoid the spending cuts and those who are open to the idea.

You’ve heard the word “sequester” mentioned by politicians a lot lately. The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe explains what the term means, and why it matters. (The Washington Post)

Obama heralded Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) for endorsing an overhaul of the tax code that raises new revenue, bringing him to Newport News on Air Force One. He also met later in the day with Republican Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and John McCain (Ariz.), who have signaled that they would be open to more taxes as part of a broader compromise that also overhauled entitlements.

But GOP leaders showed no such interest Tuesday. House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) lashed out at Obama, saying he was exploiting members of the armed services to achieve political aims.

“I don’t think the president’s focused on trying to find a solution to the sequester,” he said at a news conference. “The president has been traveling all over the country and today [is] going down to Newport News in order to use our military men and women as a prop in yet another campaign rally to support his tax hikes.”

With the sequester all but certain to begin Friday, Republicans and Democrats were positioning for a longer brawl that would last until at least late March, when a stopgap measure that funds the government expires.

The administration has acknowledged that the full brunt of the sequester wouldn’t be felt until near then, and both sides are looking to that battle to determine whether the cuts remain — and whether the government shuts down.

Senate Democrats are planning to advance a proposal before Friday that would halt much of the across-the-board reductions through the end of the year and replace them with a combination of other cuts and tax increases, including a new minimum tax rate for those making more than $5 million a year. It is not expected to get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Republican filibuster.

Republicans are divided about their strategy. Senate Republicans had planned to push for a bill that would preserve the $85 billion in cuts for this fiscal year but give the administration greater flexibility in how to manage them.

But McCain, Graham and other GOP senators say they oppose handing over the appropriations power, usually the domain of Congress, to the White House, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said Tuesday that Republicans are still plotting their legislative strategy. In any case, Democrats are expected to reject any GOP proposal that would leave the scale of the cuts intact.

Obama seems intent on capitalizing on divisions within the GOP. In Newport News, he said more Republicans need to follow in the footsteps of Rigell and McCain.

“I’ve got to give Scott Rigell credit. He is one of your Republican congressmen who’s with us here today — and that’s not always healthy for a Republican, being with me,” Obama said. “But the reason he’s doing it is because he knows it’s important to you. And he’s asked his colleagues in the House to consider closing tax loopholes instead of letting these automatic cuts go through.”

Rigell told reporters on Air Force One that although the country needs to cut spending, “I also believe that revenue has to come up a bit, first by growing the economy, but also by tax reform, which also includes eliminating lobbyist-inspired, lobbyist-written loopholes.”

Republican leaders seemed uninterested, though, and announced that their first big bill of the year would be an overhaul of the tax code that would not raise the overall tax burden. In exchange for scaling back tax breaks, Republicans plan to lower rates.

“I’m not interested in new revenue at this point,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said Tuesday.

With its decision to release detainees in immigration facilities, the Obama administration sought to make clear the impact of the sequester.

The move drew heavy GOP criticism. “The last thing you would do to meet a budget cut of this size would be to voluntarily undertake actions that undermine the rule of law and endanger the public safety,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.).

House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) said in an interview on CBS, “I, frankly, think this is outrageous.”

Historically, many illegal immigrants released from federal detention centers while in deportation proceedings do not show up for subsequent court appearances, joining the ranks of what the Immigration and Customs Enforcement calls absconders or “fugitive aliens.”

The agency has estimated that detention costs $122 per bed per day. It has been under pressure by immigration advocacy and civil rights groups to rely on cheaper detention alternatives for those in deportation proceedings who do not pose a security threat. More cost-effective alternatives include electronic ankle-bracelet monitoring, telephone monitoring and community-based monitoring programs.

In a news briefing Monday before the releases were announced, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano indicated that sequestration would affect detention policy. “I’m supposed to have 34,000 detention beds for immigration,” she said. “How do I pay for those?”

William Branigin, Sari Horwitz, Paul Kane, Lori Montgomery and Tara Bahrampour contributed to this report.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.
Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
Republicans debated Saturday night. The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Dan Balz says...
Rarely has the division between Trump and party elites been more apparent. Trump trashed one of the most revered families in Republican politics and made a bet that standing his ground is better than backing down. Drawing boos from the audience, Trump did not flinch. But whether he will be punished or rewarded by voters was the unanswerable question.
GOP candidates react to Justice Scalia's death
Quoted
I don't know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn't speak Spanish.
Sen. Marco Rubio, attacking Sen. Ted Cruz in Saturday night's very heated GOP debate in South Carolina. Soon after, Cruz went on a tirade in Spanish.
The Fix asks The State's political reporter where the most important region of the state is.
The State's Andy Shain says he could talk about Charleston, which represents a little bit of everything the state has to offer from evangelicals to libertarians, and where Ted Cruz is raising more money than anywhere else. In a twist, Marco Rubio is drawing strong financial support from more socially conservative Upstate. That said, Donald Trump is bursting all the conventional wisdom in the state. So maybe the better answer to this question is, "Wherever Trump is."
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

March 6: Democratic debate

on CNN, in Flint, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.