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."
Republicans argue that while they don't like some of the specific cuts, particularly to defense, the party will not accept more taxes and wants a different set of spending cuts that would cover entitlement spending.
"Personally, I don't believe the world will end if the president's sequester takes effect," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. "But our country would be much better served if the Democrats who run Washington would get off the campaign trail and work with us to trim the budget in a more rational way."
The Senate will hold votes this week on two proposals: a Democratic bill to cut agriculture subsidies and impose a new minimum tax rate on the wealthy in order to cancel half of the sequesters, and a Republican bill that likely would try to give the administration the ability to move money around to blunt the worst cuts.
In the meantime, though, the White House has highlighted some of those worst-case scenarios.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano on Monday told reporters at the White House that she would be forced to furlough Border Patrol agents, pulling them from their rounds along the U.S.-Mexico border.
She also hinted at the decision to release illegal immigrants, saying she would not be able to maintain the full slate of 34,000 detention beds mandated by Congress.
"How am I supposed to pay for those? There's only so much I can do," she said.
United We Dream, an immigrant rights group, said the releases show that the administration had been keeping folks detained who never should have been there.
"Low-priority individuals — people who pose absolutely no risk or danger to society, but rather are upstanding members of their communities and families — should not have been locked up to begin with," said Carolina Canizales, coordinator of United We Dream's End Our Pain program.
Republicans said the homeland security budget remains high and that the total amount of cuts is only slightly more than 5 percent of ICE's budget. They argued that the savings could come from maintenance funds instead of operations.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who oversees ICE, called the decision to release immigrants back into society "abhorrent."
"By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the administration is needlessly endangering American lives," the Virginia Republican said in a statement. "It also undermines our efforts to come together with the administration and reform our nation's immigration laws. Unfortunately, this Administration has a poor record of enforcing our immigration laws and has routinely sought to undermine them."
Ms. Napolitano on Monday also warned about an increase in illegal immigrants if the sequesters take effect, arguing that the cuts will mean fewer agents to patrol the border or watch the ports of entry.
Illegal entries had been declining in recent years, though a rise in border arrests last year suggested that the trend may have halted.
Officials also have expressed concern about spillover violence from the brutal drug war in Mexico, but a study released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office found that crime rates in the counties along the U.S.-Mexico border are down.
In three states where there were counties with enough data to reach a conclusion, GAO said the rate of violent crime dropped by 26 percent from 2004 to 2011. But the auditors said it was impossible to know whether spillover violence in particular has risen because the data aren't kept that way.
GAO did say that local officials in most counties are worried about spillover violence and in particular about cartels targeting American law enforcement.
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