US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said last week it was releasing a "few hundred" detainees to save money ahead of the automatic spending cuts in the “sequester.” A few days later, the Associated Press reported that the move involved closer to 2,000 detainees, who were set free from Atlanta to Livingston, Texas.
As criticism about the move – was it a sequester-related scare tactic by the White House? – rose from politicians like House Speaker John Boehner, ICE contended that it did not coordinate with the White House. The released detainees, it said, were "noncriminals and other low-risk offenders who do not have serious criminal histories."
But this week, Gov. Rick Perry (R) of Texas has been among those suggesting a more sinister development – that many of the released detainees are "criminal aliens," whose release onto the streets represents a massive and "unconscionable ... federally sponsored jailbreak."
To be sure, immigration record keeping and reporting are so poor in the United States that entire academic departments make their hay out of squeezing ICE for information and then analyzing the data for public consumption. When a nonpartisan immigration think tank released a report about ICE's work on the border recently, one person at the center suggested with a sigh that the report told a powerful tale that the agency had largely failed to tell itself.
Yet the lack of detailed information from ICE about its detainee policy has only added fuel to the questions and criticisms surrounding the detainee release.
Here it what is known so far about the release – from the terminology ICE uses for illegal immigrants to a glimpse into the kinds of people ICE has released.
The detainee controversy comes after other moves by the Obama administration. Since early in the Obama presidency, ICE has used greater discretion in deciding whom to target for deportation, focusing on those deemed higher risks to public safety. And last year, the administration set up a program that allows young illegal immigrants who were brought to the US as children to be eligible for work permits.
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.
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.
“Aside from allowing this federally sponsored jailbreak to occur, ICE has also failed to provide any information regarding the number of detainees released, their countries of origin, locations where these individuals have been released, and the reasons they were detained – despite repeated requests from my office," Perry wrote on Monday to John Morton, director of ICE. "The finger pointing at the highest levels of the Obama administration and unwillingness to take responsibility for this massive security threat is unacceptable.”
Media organizations have tracked down some of those involved in the detainee release, giving some insight into the kinds of people ICE saw fit to release.
Anthony Orlando Williams, a Jamaican national in his 50s now staying in Stone Mountain, Ga., was thrown into detention three years ago for violating probation after a 2005 conviction of simple assault, simple battery, and child abuse, all tied to a domestic dispute, according to The New York Times. "I'm good, man. I'm free," he told the paper.
Another man probably released as part of the sequester move was Miguel Hernandez, a 19-year-old illegal immigrant who had been picked up in rural Georgia. "I'm not a criminal," Mr. Hernandez told CNN, although he noted that he thought some of those who were released along with him may have been previously deported.
Time will tell if those freed comply with the terms of their release. If ICE is right, and the release becomes part of an argument against mass incarceration of “low risk” illegal immigrants, then the budget cuts may have presaged sound policy, some immigration-policy experts suggest.
"This really points out that despite the rhetoric about our targeting hardened criminals, there's actually not that many hardened criminal illegal immigrants to go around," says Allert Brown-Gort, an immigration expert at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. "There are lots and lots of people in the system that are clearly no danger to society, which is why [programs like the release and alternatives-to-detention] make sense."
Critics, meanwhile, maintain that the detainee release is a ruse that has little to do with budgets – and that ICE's lack of details bolsters the argument that politics is afoot.
"Obviously there's nothing in the sequester that says ICE has to release anybody: The idea is absurd," says Steven Camarota, research director at CIS. "They could hold or defer some payments, they could furlough some part of a bloated bureaucracy, but instead they chose to release illegals."