Why Letting Illegal Immigrants Out of Jail Makes Sense

In Phoenix, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office jails suspected illegal immigrants in tents Photograph by Matt York/AP Photo

Critics of the Obama administration are riled up over reports that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, facing federal budget cuts, has quietly been letting some apprehended illegal immigrants out of federal detention facilities because the government can longer afford to hold them. According to the Associated Press, the number has reached the thousands.

Republicans are accusing the president of being soft on illegal immigrants. In fact, he has been been anything but that. Until now, President Obama’s policy has been to jail and deport as many undocumented workers as possible, regardless of the cost. The question is whether he’s wasted a lot of money rounding up undocumented workers without much to show for it.

The administration has spent $73 billion on immigration enforcement since 2009, more than the budgets of all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The government is on track to deport two million people, the New York Times reports, nearly the same number as were deported from 1892 to 1997.

Record numbers of illegal immigrants have been admitted to the 250 detention facilities across the country. Many have committed no crime other than being in the U.S. illegally. (These are the people—not more serious offenders—that the administration says are now being released under the budget cuts.) Until 2006, most people apprehended crossing the border with Mexico weren’t kept in detention; they were simply sent back to Mexico. The flood of cases has overburdened the system: The average immigrant now waits two years for a deportation hearing in immigration court, and the ratio of immigrants to judges is 600 to 1, the Migration Policy Institute calculates.

It’s not clear whether all this expense and effort has substantially decreased the number of undocumented workers entering the U.S. Mexican migration is at its lowest level in years—yet those who study the issue say that this may have as much to do with the slow U.S. economy as it does with fears of being caught.

Democrats and Republicans have simply taken the policy for granted. Asked last week why she is releasing immigrants, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the AP: “You know, I’m supposed to have 34,000 detention beds for immigration. How do I pay for those?” The budget cuts are now forcing the question of whether they were ever worth paying for.

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