(USA Today) - Federal immigration officials say they have released hundreds of illegal immigrants from detention centers around the country in a move denounced by Republicans as an attempt to frighten Americans into supporting President Obama's budget spending demands.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said in a statement the agency is not dropping deportation cases against those released. Because of the "fiscal uncertainty" hovering over the federal government, she said it was necessary to release them "to ensure detention levels stay within ICE's current budget."
"All of these individuals remain in removal proceedings," Gonzalez said. "Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety."
The uncertainty Gonzalez referred to is the $87 billion in automatic spending cuts due to go into effect Friday. Known as sequestration, the spending cuts are part of a 10-year, $1.2 trillion automatic decrease in federal spending put into effect by Congress and agreed to by Obama during negotiations to raise the federal debt ceiling.
Obama is demanding tax hikes as a way to avoid the sequestration cuts. Republicans are generally in favor of cutting the budget but say sequestration is the wrong way to do it because it hits the nation's defense department too heavily. Obama has been denouncing the GOP this week for not being willing to raise taxes as well as cut spending.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who said it was "abhorrent" that Obama would release people "to promote his political agenda on sequestration," suggested the release was merely a way to pressure Republicans to vote his way.
"By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the administration is needlessly endangering American lives," Goodlatte said in a statement. "It also undermines our efforts to come together with the Administration and reform our nation's immigration laws."
Under current funding, ICE has the ability to hold 34,000 people in custody. People released from custody can be placed in a variety of supervised release programs similar to probation programs used in many states, according to ICE officials. They can be subjected to electronic monitoring such as an ankle brace that sends information on their whereabouts to authorities. They can also be required to show up at an ICE office at regular intervals, or routinely call ICE officials to update them on their status.
The announcement came on the same day that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano provided an update on the state of domestic security in the U.S. During her speech, she warned that the sequester cuts would affect "all core missions" of the department, including the loss of 5,000 border agents.
"I have never seen anything like this," she said.