WASHINGTON -- Immigration and Customs Enforcement released some people from immigrant detention facilities across the country on Monday in response to looming federal budget cuts.
"In order to make the best use of our limited detention resources in the current fiscal climate and to manage our detention population under current congressionally mandated levels, ICE has directed field offices to review the detained population to ensure it is in line with available funding," agency spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in a statement.
ICE and the Department of Homeland Security are analyzing spending as congressional inaction increases the likelihood of so-called budget sequestration -- across-the-board spending cuts that begin on March 1. Detaining immigrants is an expensive business, with an average daily cost of $122 to $164 per person, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Alternatives, including ankle bracelets and parole, are far cheaper.
Christensen declined to say how many undocumented immigrants were freed on Monday or to give their locations. She said they have been "placed on an appropriate, more cost-effective form of supervised release." ICE did not drop the cases against the individuals and will still deport them if ordered by an immigration judge, she said.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano foreshadowed the announcement earlier in the day at a press briefing. She said ICE "will be forced" under sequestration to reduce detention and removal of undocumented immigrants.
"All I can say is, look, we're doing our very best to minimize the impacts of sequester," Napolitano told reporters at the White House. "But there’s only so much I can do. I'm supposed to have 34,000 detention beds for immigration. How do I pay for those?"
Immigrant rights groups began buzzing Monday with reports from detention centers, where they said low-priority detainees had been released in large numbers. Activists have long called for ICE to release some detainees, either to allow them to stay in the United States or to keep them out of prison-like detention centers until they are deported. The rights groups have argued that the Obama administration has violated its stated principle of focusing on the most dangerous undocumented immigrants in favor of padding numbers by going after low-level offenders instead, as reported by USA Today earlier this month.
The Obama administration has repeatedly said it will apply more prosecutorial discretion to immigration, releasing immigrants deemed low-priority so it can focus resources on those who are potentially dangerous or otherwise a high priority. The administration also implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that has so far allowed more than 150,000 undocumented young people -- often called Dreamers -- to stay in the United States, work legally and drive.
According to ICE, the administration has increased the proportion of criminal immigrants it has expelled, while setting a record for deportations overall.
Advocacy groups said they were pleased that ICE released some detained undocumented immigrants.
"The people being released today are people ICE could have released months -- or in some cases, years -- ago," Mohammad Abdollahi, a member of the Dreamer-led National Immigrant Youth Alliance, said in a statement. "If ICE adhered to its own policies, they would have. As the president continues to push for immigration reform, his record on deportations will only stand in greater contrast with the policies he has proposed."