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ICE releases hundreds of detainees as budget cuts loom

An ICE detention

center

“Several hundred” detainees at Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation centers around the U.S. were released during the week of Feb. 18 to reduce spending in the face of looming budget cuts in Washington, ICE officials confirmed.

The immigration detainees, according to ICE officials, were still under supervision and will continue to face deportation proceedings.

"All of these individuals remain in removal proceedings. Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety," said ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christiansen on Feb. 25.

The releases were an effort “to ensure detention levels stay within ICE's current budget,” said Christiansen. ICE and a host of government agencies and the defense department face deep budget cuts on March 1, when $85 billion in federally-mandated reductions are set to take effect. DHS secretary Janet Napolitano has said significant reductions in the number of Border Patrol agents might also result from the cuts.

Republicans and Democrats have been battling over how to solve the budget impasse for months, but resolution seems remote.

The release of the detainees became fodder for the budget argument in Washington. The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) called the mass release “unprecedented” and “shows that the administration does not plan on negotiating with Congress to avoid the sequester.” Sequester is Washington jargon for the forced budget cuts.  He accused the Obama administration of using the sequester crisis “to achieve its desired goal of shifting money away from detentions and returning to a de facto catch-and-release policy.”

He said the administration had looked to decrease the amount of detention space by $53 million last year, but Congress had denied that request.

“Releasing several hundred individuals could save money, but will still amount to a small percentage of what DHS must cut if we go into sequestration,” he said, calling the release “not a responsible option”  that could put U.S. national security at risk.

DHS, he said, spent $648 million on headquarters, management and administration. “A reduction in its bloated administrative budget, which includes worldwide conferences costing millions of dollars, would cover the cost of keeping these detainees in federal custody,” he said.