Immigration officials tight-lipped about detainee release. What is known?
Here are the basics about the detainee release – from the terminology that immigration officials use to a glimpse into the kinds of people who have been released.
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The new ICE move comes as Republicans weigh how far to go on agreeing to a "path to citizenship" as part of a looming immigration reform package. Both Democrats and Republicans, in fact, have used the detainee release for political posturing in the larger immigration debate.Skip to next paragraph
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Critics say the release shows that the Obama administration is not willing to enforce the existing laws that target undocumented immigrants – which for the critics could be an immigration-reform deal breaker. Others counterargue that the administration's actions actually show it's serious. Not only has the White House beefed up border security, they say, but President Obama has also deported more illegal immigrants per year than has any other president.
At least part of the detainee release has to do with the number of detention beds. A congressional funding mandate says that 34,000 detention beds need to be filled (with an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the US). But a day before ICE announced the detainee release, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano talked about reducing the number of detention beds.
Indeed, ICE officials have begun whittling down the number of beds without congressional approval. Facing the sequester, ICE officials plan to draw down to as few as 26,000 beds by March 31, the Associated Press said after its review of DHS records. The savings is about $150 per night, per bed.
Critics see in the bed reduction a willful ignorance of Congress. And such disregard is an ongoing point of contention and distrust between especially House Republicans and Mr. Obama. But according to the administration, the release was simply an acceleration of the discretionary decisions already being made by ICE – weighing detainees' flight risks and criminal past against available bed space.
Those released have been put into so-called alternatives-to-detention programs, which include phone check-ins and GPS anklets. They show up for court 96 percent of the time, data indicate. But overall, illegal immigrants notified by mail of deportation proceedings against them decide 59 percent of the time not to show up, according to the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), an anti-illegal immigration think tank in Washington.
Another issue that has come up in the detainee release is ICE’s terminology, which in the eyes of many is head-shakingly vague. ICE uses the term "criminal aliens" to describe persons found guilty of minor violations such as traffic offenses, as well as people convicted on more-serious charges such as assault – and it also describes those who have simply committed immigration violations.
More recently, however, ICE has tried to finesse the definition of what constitutes a criminal alien, saying it would spend most of its resources detaining and deporting "high-risk criminal aliens." This refers to those who had committed crimes more serious than misdemeanor traffic tickets.
Since 2010, the Obama administration has stepped up deportations for high-risk criminal aliens, a group that made up 27 percent of detainees in 2009 and 43 percent in 2010.
Questions about criminality in the detainee population have loomed large after the recent release, especially since law-and-order perceptions about illegal immigrants are a key part of immigration politics.
Politicians like Governor Perry have been dissatisfied with the amount of information ICE has given out about the detainees.