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Detainees released: Could that hurt immigration reform? (+video)

Hundreds of immigration detainees deemed low risk have been released – part of a national game of chicken over the 'sequester.’ But the move could have consequences for immigration reform.

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"The agency released these low-risk, noncriminal detainees under a less expensive form of monitoring to ensure detention levels stayed within ICE's overall budget," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday, insisting that the White House was not involved in the decision.

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On Monday, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, a member of the Obama Cabinet, offered: "I'm supposed to have 34,000 [beds for detainees]. How do I pay for those? We want to maintain [some] 22,000 ... Border Patrol agents. I've got to be able to pay their salaries."

Currently, 30,000 immigration scofflaws are housed in 250 detention facilities nationwide.

Pro-immigrant activists hailed ICE’s move, calling it a common-sense approach that will save the government a lot of money. They also cited research suggesting that those enrolled in alternative-to-detention programs, which include GPS anklets, come to their final immigration hearings 96 percent of the time.

More broadly, however, 59 percent of all alleged immigration lawbreakers who are not detained by ICE fail to show up for their immigration court dates, critics say. Moreover, some 600,000 illegal immigrants have never answered deportation letters sent to them by ICE, according to the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a Washington think tank that advocates stronger borders and tougher immigration enforcement.

"Illegal immigrants are by definition flight risks," says Steven Camarota, research director at the center.

So far, polls suggest that Republicans are on a "death march" by opposing moves like eliminating tax loopholes and some deductions, Mr. Brown-Gort says. Earlier this week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) complained that Obama is "trying to scare the American people" by ginning up potential effects from the sequester, which really puts the brakes on spending growth, in part by reducing Treasury outlays for discretionary spending.

Beyond the sequester showdown are the recent moves toward immigration reform, with both Obama and a bipartisan group of senators, notably including Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, outlining proposals that move illegal immigrants toward legalization. In that light, the Obama administration could be particularly vulnerable to criticism over releasing lawbreakers, especially if any of those detainees cause mayhem that makes the news.

"[The Obama administration is] basically saying, 'Look, the Republicans are so irresponsible they're forcing us to release illegal aliens,' " says Mr. Camarota at CIS. "But I'm not sure this particular [gambit] is going to play out the way they hope. Obviously there's nothing in the sequester that says you have to release anybody. And if you have legalization, that's predicated on a promise of future enforcement, and this shows [the Obama administration] is not serious about enforcing laws."

Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R) of Virginia, who's been tasked with trying to find a compromise path for immigration reform in the House, addressed ICE’s move at a Wednesday breakfast with reporters sponsored by the Monitor.

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