WASHINGTON -- A week before some mandatory budget cuts go into effect across the government, the Department of Homeland Security has started releasing undocumented immigrants being held in immigration jails across the country, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said yesterday.
Spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said ICE has reviewed "several hundred cases" of immigrants being held in jails nationally and released those that met certain criteria in the last week. They have been "placed on an appropriate, more cost-effective form of supervised release," she said.
Christensen said the agency's "priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety."
She did not say how released immigrants were selected or what jails they were released from.
She said released immigrants will still face deportation proceedings. The announcement of jail releases is the first tangible impact of the looming budget cuts for the Homeland Security department.
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The Obama administration has been issuing dire warnings about the impact of the sequestration, and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters Monday at the White House that across-the-board cuts would cut into the department's core operations, including border security and airport screening operations.
She also warned that DHS might not be able to afford to keep the 34,000 immigration jail beds mandated by Congress. On average last week, there were 30,773 people being held in ICE jails.
According to the National Immigration Forum, it costs the government about $164 a day to keep an illegal immigrant facing deportation in jail. In a report on immigration detention costs last year the advocacy group said costs for supervised release can range from about 30 cents to $14 a day.
Republicans lawmakers decried the releases.
"It's abhorrent that President [Barack] Obama is releasing criminals into our communities to promote his political agenda on sequestration," said House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte. "By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the administration is needlessly endangering American lives. It also undermines our efforts to come together with the administration and reform our nation's immigration laws."
The administration asked for about $1.96 billion for immigration jail operations in the last budget. That amounts to about $5.4 million a day, according to the National Immigration Forum's report.