The sequester is officially still several days away but the Obama administration is already making the first cuts, with officials confirming that the Homeland Security Department has released several hundred illegal immigrants from detention in order to save money.
The move is proving controversial. Immigrant rights advocates say it shows the administration was detaining folks who never should have been apprehended in the first place, while Republicans said dangerous criminals may be released.
It’s one of the first specific cuts related to the budget sequester, which is due to take effect Friday and will require the government to trim $85 billion from defense and domestic spending this year.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that runs the detention facilities, said that with sequesters and the annual spending bills looming, officials have tried to find places to cut, and releasing low-priority immigrants is one of those ways.
“Over the last week, ICE has reviewed several hundred cases and placed these individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention,” ICE said in a statement. “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.”
While being released from detention, the illegal immigrants are still subject to supervision — either by electronic device or by being required to check in with ICE by phone or in person.
Republicans said releasing detainees was a scare tactic by the White House, which has sought to highlight some of the worst effects of the budget sequesters.
“The last thing you would do to meet a budget cut of this size would be to voluntarily undertake actions that undermine the rule of law and endanger the public safety,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican. “It is clear the administration is using the sequester as a convenient excuse to bow to political pressure from the amnesty groups, as it did with its unilateral decision to confer legal status on millions who are not lawfully present.”
The sequesters are $85 billion in spending cuts this year and even bigger cuts every year for a decade. They were set into motion by the 2011 debt deal, and will require across-the-board cuts to all government spending save for entitlements such as Social Security.
All sides on Capitol Hill say they want to avert the cuts, though they cannot agree on how to do so.
President Obama has urged Congress to approve additional taxes so the government can continue to spend on education, defense and homeland security.
“I’m not interested in spin; I’m not interested in a blame game,” Mr. Obama told workers at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, which is poised to have 11 shipbuilding projects canceled under the sequesters and another four projects delayed. “All I’m interested in is solving problems. These cuts are wrong. They’re not smart, they’re not fair.”
But Rep. E. Scott Rigell, the Virginia Republican whose district includes the shipyard, said the president has failed to offer a specific solution to the sequester.
“I’d ask the president to put forth a specific, definitive alternative,” said Mr. Rigell, who flew to the event with the president aboard Air Force One. “I haven’t seen that to date. He’s given broad principles.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio expressed Republican frustration more colorfully, saying Tuesday that the House already had passed two sequester replacement bills and thus there was no point in working on a third “before the Senate gets off their ass and begins to do something.”