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Frustration, confusion mount in wake ICE illegal immigrant releases

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State and federal authorities are frustrated with the lack of specific details from the Department of Homeland Security about the release of immigration detainees in preparation for today’s sequester. 

Less than a week into the new policy, ICE's response following the announcement illegal immigrants would be freed from detention centers to save money is only that "hundreds have been released across the country." Lawmakers and local officials in border states want to know how many are being released, what detention centers are involved and what the cost savings goal is.

A frustrated Rep. Mike McCaul, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, demanded answers from ICE Director John Morton by March 6.

"I am also concerned that these releases were undertaken without notification to the appropriate Congressional oversight committees," McCaul wrote Morton. 

Pinal County, Ariz., Sheriff Paul Babeu, Pina fired off a terse letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano Thursday demanding answers.

“Protocol and logic should have required your staff to formally notify me, as the top law enforcement official in the county where this occurred, about this mass release of hundreds of foreign criminals into my county and elsewhere, yet regrettably this never happened,” Babeu said in the letter.

While Babeu was inexplicably kept out of the loop, his colleagues in El Paso and San Diego, both highly active border regions, were informed by ICE officials ahead of the releases.

El Paso Sheriff Richard Wiles said his agency was informed by ICE of their plans, but still did not know how many detainees have been released this week. 

“The release of detained undocumented immigrants to a supervised release type situation does not impact the Sheriff’s Office, as we do not enforce Federal Immigration Law,” Wiles said.

San Diego County Sheriff William Gore was also made aware of ICE’s plans in his region and like Wiles, expressed no concerns over the move.

“We have a good working relationship with ICE in this area and don’t see any cause for concern over the recent decision to release detainees,” said Jan Caldwell, spokeswoman, Sam Diego County Sheriff’s Department.

A forewarning of the current release policy emerged from a letter Napolitano sent to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D- Md., chairwoman of the Committee on Appropriations, on Jan. 31, which still leaves many unanswered questions.

Napolitano told Mikulski that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would not be able to sustain current detention and removal operations or maintain the 34,000 detention beds mandated by Congress. This would significantly roll back progress that resulted in record-high removals.

There is also concern about the prospect of cutbacks in Border Patrol agents along the border which could affect whatever progress has been made in recent years.

"U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) would not be able to maintain current staffing
levels of Border Patrol Agents and CBP Officers as mandated by Congress," Napolitano told Mikulski. "Funding and staffing reductions will increase wait times at airports, affect security between land ports of entry, affect CBP's ability to collect revenue owed to the Federal Government, and slow screening and entry programs for those traveling into the United States."
 
A freshman Congressman who knows the U.S.-Mexico border firsthand says the recent decision by the Department of Homeland Security to release low-risk detainees may actually be a solution to a festering problem.

Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) of El Paso, Texas, who sits on the House Committee on Homeland Security with McCaul, told FoxNews.com there is bi-partisan agreement that there are too many people being detained in ICE facilities that don't belong there and that the decision this week by Napolitano to release low-risk detainees as a cost-saving measure may actually be a harbinger for where the federal immigration policy should be heading.

"The detention centers are a horribly broken element of our immigration policy," O'Rourke said. "These people being released are not serious criminals and do not pose a threat to the United States."