The Obama Administration announced yesterday that it would release hundreds of immigrants from federal detention facilities to save money in anticipation of the coming sequestration. Federal immigration authorities said the government could not afford to lock up so many immigrants.
It’s not clear how many were released but reports have emerged from around the country that detainees were released from lockup in New Jersey, Florida, Texas, Louisiana, New York, Arizona, Alabama and Georgia.
Authorities were quick to note that none of those released posed a threat. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Gillian Christianson said in a statement that ICE’s “[p]riority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety.”
But immigrant rights groups immediately asked why these detainees were held in the first place. Advocates have long said that the detention system is expensive and unfair, and add that community-based alternatives to detention are far cheaper.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds nearly 34,000 detainees at any given time, and over 400,000 people are locked up in the course of a year. It costs between $122 to $164 a day to detain immigrants in the federal facilities, according to the National Immigration Forum.
“We are encouraged to see that ICE has heard our demands and released immigrants from some of our country’s worst detention facilities,” said Andrea Black, the head of the group Detention Watch Network, in a statement. “Now is the time to review government priorities and stop using a political calculus to detain immigrants unnecessarily.”
“This action must be a part of a larger initiative to reform our immigration detention system,” Black added.
But the release of detainees may be more political stunt than a sign of what’s to come on detention from the administration. The White House is in an 11th hour rush to avoid the full fallout of sequestration and may have hoped the detainee release would sufficiently rile the Republican base to push leaders to find common ground.
Instead, most Republicans are lambasting the president while refusing to budge on a sequestration deal.
“It’s abhorrent that President Obama is releasing criminals into our communities to promote his political agenda on sequestration,” said House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte. “By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the Administration is needlessly endangering American lives.”
In fact, immigration detention is not a criminal punishment. Many detainees have not been convicted of any crime and are held awaiting their deportation. Those released from detention will still face deportation proceedings, but will be allowed to remain in their communities and with their families while their cases proceed.