Republicans call foul on release of immigrant detainees

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.

Jeremy Redmon/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
In this undated photo, immigrants walk to hearings at the Stewart Detention Center in Lupmkin, Ga. The move this week to release hundreds, possibly thousands, of immigrant detainees to prepare for automatic spending cuts has Republicans calling foul.

The move this week by US immigration officials to release hundreds, possibly thousands, of detained illegal immigrants to prepare for automatic spending cuts has Republicans calling foul. It’s renewed lingering questions on the right about how serious President Obama is about immigration enforcement, and even whether Congress still has a role to play in how the administration oversees the nation’s borders.

To be sure, Mr. Obama has overseen record numbers of annual deportations since he took office, and his administration has beefed up patrols along the US-Mexico border, according to a recent study by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Also, the White House on Wednesday denied any prior knowledge of the detainee release, calling it the purview of career Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) bureaucrats dealing with a 5 percent cut in discretionary spending that could start Friday.

But critics on the Hill suggest the detainee release, announced Tuesday by ICE officials, is in fact part of a broader, ongoing executive strategy to circumvent congressional mandates. In this case, they say, the goal is a new national immigration policy that’s dictated not by Congress, but by the White House.

Either way, the move comes at a sensitive time for immigration policy, as congressional leaders are attempting to shepherd a compromise immigration-reform bill through the chambers. A major potential holdup for that plan is whether Republicans can trust the Obama White House to enforce US immigration law.

“The administration is using the looming sequestration [budget cuts] in order to open the doors to let people out, because they really never wanted to detain these people in the first place,” says Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which advocates against illegal immigration. “At some point, you would think Congress would have to respond, because it reaches a point where the administration is basically saying, ‘We don’t care what you guys are doing, and we’re going to ignore your constitutional role in how the country is run.’ ”

Congress has mandated as part of its appropriations that ICE detain at least 34,000 people, noted senior Republicans, including House Judiciary Committee chairman Robert Goodlatte and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, ICE’s latest move appears to violate this legislation, they contend. ICE reported that it had just under 31,000 people in custody this week.

The Center for Immigration Studies, another Washington immigration think tank that advocates against illegal immigration, reported late Wednesday that ICE field offices had been instructed “to reduce the number of detainees from 34,000 to 25,000,” according to CIS staffer Jessica Vaughan on the group’s website. Officially, ICE has requested that Congress reduce its detainee mandate, or quota, to 32,800 detainees next year, while it would expand “alternative to detention” programs that use phone check-ins or GPS anklets to ensure that those charged with immigration violations attend their court hearings.

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.

“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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