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Republicans call foul on release of immigrant detainees (+video)

Immigration officials say the detainee release was a bureaucratic necessity to prepare for sequester budget cuts. But the move has raised questions about whether the administration is playing politics.

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Republican allegations that ICE is circumventing Congress on behalf of a covert presidential immigration gambit are overwrought, says Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer at the Migration Policy Institute in New York.

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“Yes, if you read the congressional language, there is an expectation of a minimum requirement [for the number of detainees] that you must meet for appropriation. But from what I’ve seen, they’re broadly speaking keeping that minimum requirement,” Mr. Chishti says. “This idea that this is a politically motivated action doesn’t hold water. This looks like a completely rational decision on the part of ICE officials confronted with a budget crisis.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, on Wednesday wrote a pointed letter to ICE Director John Morton, giving him a week to report back with information about exactly how many detainees were released, who they were, and why they had been detained. It appears that at least some of those released have minor criminal records, but ICE officials have sworn that none of the released detainees are a threat to public safety.

The situation is especially sensitive for Republicans because of lingering resentments over a high-profile decision the Obama administration carried out on its own last year: It set up a new protocol that allows younger illegal immigrants who have spent most of their life in the United States to be eligible for work permits. As of mid-February, nearly 200,000 applications for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) had been approved. The program, in practice, works as a scaled-back version of the DREAM Act, which has not passed Congress.

So far, there are no signs that the DACA program has been affected by the sequestration cuts, adding to a sense among some Republicans that the administration has broken free of constitutional boundaries.

“So here the administration is, cutting programs [like detainee quotas] mandated by Congress while DACA remains untouched, even though Congress never authorized it,” says Mr. Mehlman of FAIR. “In essence, the administration has decided it’s going to ignore laws passed by Congress and implement one that Congress rejected.”

Now, the move by ICE to release detainees could threaten an immigration reform compromise. Such legislation would probably have to include a strong law-enforcement provision to win votes from conservative Republicans.

“It is clear the administration is using the sequester as a convenient excuse to bow to political pressure from the amnesty groups,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “With this new action, the administration has further demonstrated that it has no commitment to enforcing the law and cannot be trusted to deliver on any future promises of enforcement.”

Others point out that the firestorm over the detainee release does not acknowledge fundamental realities of the immigration detention system – namely, that the country could actually save taxpayer money by reducing the numbers of detainees.

If it’s true, as ICE says, that those released are noncriminals, “it’s fair to ask why they were in prison in the first place, given that alternatives ... like electronic monitoring are highly effective and far cheaper,” says Lawrence Downes, who writes for The New York Times’ editorial page, in his Taking Note blog. But “to the Fox News crowd, it was as if the administration had suddenly thrown open the gates to Sing Sing, Joliet and Guantanamo, leaving America vulnerable to a human tide of dangerous foreigners.”

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