Detainees released: Could that hurt immigration reform?

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.

Citing impending budget cuts, immigration officials have announced the release of hundreds of detainees considered low-level threats to public safety. This move by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has quickly turned into one of the most baffling chapters in the public-relations chess match going on between House Republicans and the Obama White House over the looming “sequester.”

The release of detainees may score some short-term points for President Obama, who has been sending dire warnings about the impact of the cuts, including with a speech Tuesday at a Virginia shipyard. But the GOP could also strike a chord with Americans by highlighting security concerns and other issues posed by the release.

And such concerns could bring into play even more than the fight over federal spending, deficits, and the debt. Namely, the release of detainees could also affect the debate over comprehensive immigration reform.

That's important because the GOP's political future may in part be staked on potential gains that the party can make with Hispanic voters. Mr. Obama, too, could lose a lot if immigration reform falters.

"It's natural that people in a federal organization are going to take this chance to prove how important they are to the public, especially as that goal is aligned with a White House trying to raise the ante" over the spending cuts, says Allert Brown-Gort, an immigration expert at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. "But," he adds, "this also points to some of the questions around the immigration bill right now," including how serious the government is about securing the US-Mexico border.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, the release came as ICE prepared for the sequester, which is set to kick in Friday and which mandates automatic cuts from nearly all corners of the federal bureaucracy, including ICE's $2.05 billion budget. In announcing the release, ICE insisted that the government is not dropping these deportation cases.

"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.

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.

“If the president’s idea of how to manage our federal government is to release [thousands] of people who have been detained – and most of the people who have been detained are not just illegally present in the United States, but they’ve committed some kind of a criminal act in addition to that – that seems to me to be a pretty misguided approach to how you save money in that agency,” Representative Goodlatte said.

According to The New York Times, several high-ranking Republicans "shrugged off" the release as part of an ongoing number of administration scare tactics designed to undermine those Republicans who don't mind seeing the automatic cuts go into effect.

The situation is a peek into the GOP's internecine warfare, where especially tea party hard-liners on spending and immigration are at loggerheads with establishment Republicans pushing for immigration reform and a sequester deal that may include a tax hike.

"One of the things you've got right now is that the [GOP] establishment understands that they've got to get something done on immigration, which is why they're taking a relatively low-key approach to the detainee releases," Brown-Gort says. "They don't want the base riled up on this right now. They need them to be quiet."

It may be too late.

In Arizona, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said on NPR Wednesday morning, "You don't have to be a detective to figure out that likely this is a weapon in [the sequestration] fight." He added, "A lot of criminal illegals were released ... onto streets and neighborhoods in my county, and that's not OK."

House Speaker John Boehner, Obama's chief adversary in the sequester debate, couldn't hold back, either.

"This is very hard for me to believe, that they can't find cuts elsewhere in their agency," Mr. Boehner said on CBS Tuesday. "I'm looking for more facts, but I can't believe that they can't find the kind of savings they need out of that department short of letting criminals go free."

Also on Tuesday, the senior DHS official in charge of arresting and deporting illegal immigrants informed his staff of his retirement, the Associated Press reported. Gary Mead will be leaving at the end of April, according to an e-mail to his staff that was obtained by AP. He apparently told senior DHS leaders several weeks ago of his plans.

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