The announcement that the Department of Homeland Security released a number of undocumented immigrants held in detention centers has garnered both anger and praise from both sides of the immigration debate.
Many Republican lawmakers and hard-line immigration groups blasted it as a political move by the Obama administration and an indication of the department’s frail position on national security. Immigrant rights groups, on the other hand, praised the move whether the motive behind it is political, financial or humanitarian.
The DHS said the release was part of a money saving move ahead of the automatic budget cuts that will take effect Friday under what is known as sequestration.
“It’s a wonderful thing to have people return to their family and friends,” said Emily Tucker, the policy director at the Detention Watch Network in Washington D.C. “I would like to think that there is a humanitarian reason behind the move, but whatever the reason, it is a good thing.”
According to the National Immigration Forum, it costs the government about $164 a day to keep an undocumented immigrant facing deportation behind bars. In a report on immigration detention costs last year, the advocacy group said costs for supervised release ranged from about 30 cents to $14 a day.
Besides the release of undocumented immigrants, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters at the White House Monday that across-the-board cuts would impact the department's core operations, including border security and airport screening.
She also warned that DHS might not be able to afford to keep the 34,000 immigration jail beds mandated by Congress. On average, last week there were 30,773 people being held in ICE jails.
"I don't think we can maintain the same level of security at all places around the country with sequester as without sequester," said Napolitano, adding that the impact would be "'like a rolling ball. It will keep growing."
Republican lawmaker, such as House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas, called out the DHS for its lack of “resource prioritization,” while the hardliner immigrant groups saw the immigrant as a political move – an appeal to pro-immigrant supporters and a scare tactic about the sequester aimed at the general public.
“It’s a political motivated stunt that will blow up in their faces,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “It’s part of the 'firemen first' strategy.”
Krikorian argued that these cuts to border security are meant to frighten people, and in the long term will only hurt Obama’s record on immigration after the sequester debate is over.
“This makes it a tough case to argue that the Obama administration can enforce immigration,” he added.
Sequestration is a cover-all term for a series of automatic, across-the-board budget cuts to government agencies, split evenly between defense and discretionary spending. The cuts will total $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
The sequester — which has been coming for more than a year — is an attempt to get a grapple on the U.S. national debt, which has ballooned to more than $16 trillion dollars.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that handles cases of undocumented immigrants under the DHS umbrella, said that the move was the “best use” of its resources and that the agency reviewed "several hundred cases" of immigrants being held in jails around the country. The released immigrants have been "placed on an appropriate, more cost-effective form of supervised release," said ICE spokesperson Gillian Christensen.
"As fiscal uncertainty remains over the continuing resolution and possible sequestration, ICE has reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stay within ICE’s current budget,” Christensen said. “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.”