Citing “fiscal uncertainty,” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have released hundreds of immigrants facing deportation from custody with automatic federal spending cuts set to start later this week.
The agency, part of the Homeland Security Department, will continue to monitor the individuals who’ve been set free, an ICE spokeswoman, Gillian Christensen, said in a statement. She said the releases would reduce agency expenses ahead of impending automatic budget cuts set to take effect beginning March 1.
Detention is being reserved for “serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety,” Christensen said. The others are being supervised by “less costly” methods, she said.
The agency “is continuing to prosecute their cases in immigration court, and when ordered, will seek their removal from the country,” she said. Her statement didn’t specify how many immigrants were released and how many remain in custody.
An advocacy group, Human Rights First, estimated that ICE was holding about 400,000 detainees at a daily expense of about $164 per person, compared with alternatives the group said would cost from 30 cents to $14 per individual.
“We have long advocated for expanded use of alternatives to detention, a step we knew would save taxpayers millions of dollars,” said Ruthie Epstein, a senior associate at Human Rights First. “It is a shame that it took the threat of serious budget cuts to prompt this move.”
Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the releases “a convenient excuse to bow to political pressure” from groups seeking to allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. He said the agency could have found other ways to save money.
Christensen said the move was spurred by the across-the- board spending reductions scheduled to start March 1.
Known as sequestration, the cuts would take $85 billion from federal spending in the final seven months of this fiscal year and $1.2 trillion during the next nine years. Half of the reductions will come from defense spending.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers and President Barack Obama have been unable to agree on alternatives to the cuts. Democrats have called for replacing some with higher taxes on the wealthy, while House Republicans last year voted to offset the defense cuts with curbs on food stamps and other domestic programs and remain opposed to any tax increases.
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