The Obama administration violated the law when it released thousands of illegal immigrants last February, more than 600 of whom had criminal records, according to an internal audit released Tuesday that blamed the problem on poor planning and bad leadership from Washington.
Compounding matters, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) gave bad information to Congress about the releases, initially blaming the looming budget sequester rather than the agency’s own budget pressures, the Homeland Security inspector general concluded.
The new report does exonerate top Homeland Security officials of accusations they had pressured ICE to release the immigrants to create maximum pain from the sequesters as a political tool to end them.
Instead, investigators said the problems lay at the senior levels of ICE itself, finding that top officials botched planning, didn’t inform their own superiors of the problems and didn’t even know the law required them to hold 34,000 immigrants a day until they were reminded of it by congressional staffers.
“In this single action, ICE undermined its own credibility, the rule of law and the safety of Americans and local law enforcement,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who requested the report along with Sen. John McCain.
“This report provides more evidence that our nation’s immigration laws are being flagrantly disregarded. Americans need to be assured the problems within ICE that led to the dangerous release of illegal aliens will be fixed and DHS and ICE will never again violate the law by releasing known criminals into our streets,” Mr. Coburn said.
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In a response Wednesday, ICE officials said they felt they had no choice at the time both because they were already running over capacity for detention and because they were afraid of how the budget sequesters might affect them.
“Throughout this process, ICE took careful steps to ensure public safety by focusing efforts to reduce the detained population on non-criminal, non-mandatory detention cases and cases involving individuals who posed no serious risk to community safety,” the agency said in a statement.
ICE officials said those released from detention were still being monitored in some way, either by ankle bracelet or check-in requirements.
The new surge of illegal immigrant children and families on the U.S.-Mexico border has put illegal immigration back on the front burner as the Obama administration tries to grapple with how to detain and deport the tens of thousands who are now flooding into Texas.
Officials say they are required to release the children, though they are trying to ramp up bed spaces to hold more families, most of whom are released with orders to appear for a future immigration hearing — orders many of them ignore.
The releases that the IG investigated came in February 2013, just ahead of a March 1 deadline for the start of the across-the-board budget sequesters.
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Between Feb. 9 and March 1, ICE released 2,226 immigrants, and 622 of those had criminal records, including 34 “Level 1” offenders, which includes all aggravated felony convictions. San Francisco’s ICE office alone released 11 of those Level 1 offenders.
When the releases became public, ICE agents tried to re-arrest many of the immigrants, picking up 24 of the Level 1 offenders, 30 Level 2 offenders who had lesser felonies or multiple misdemeanors and four Level 3 offenders who had a misdemeanor conviction.
The releases were so haphazard that only one of two dozen ICE offices had a lawyer available to review the detainees it was releasing, the IG said. Investigators said the ICE officers at the ground level did their best, including trying to screen people to make sure those with gang affiliations weren’t released.
The investigators said ICE didn’t realize it was breaking the law in releasing some of the immigrants until it was informed by House staffers.
Many of those released were already deemed “mandatory” detainees due to their criminal history. But it took weeks before ICE issued orders to go out and try to rearrest them, according to a time line compiled by investigators.
In its official reply included in the IG report, ICE said it was “committed to addressing the issues” raised and asserted it’s already begun.
Part of the problem is that while the law requires ICE to maintain a daily average of 34,000 detention beds, it only has funding for about 31,000. The rest of the money comes from fees or transfers from other accounts, which fell short in 2013.
Instead of asking for full funding for 34,000 beds, the administration has asked to lower the number to about 30,500 beds instead — even as it acknowledges it needs more beds to house the Central American families surging across the border this year.
In its official response, ICE also took pains to distinguish between detention beds and actual detainees — suggesting that while Congress requires it to maintain space, the administration argues it is not required to make sure those beds are actually filled.
“The language of the provision from the appropriations act does not indicate a specific daily population but rather requires DHS to maintain a level of detention beds,” said Radha C. Sekar, executive associate director of management and administration at ICE, adding that it was “important to clarify” the difference.
Mr. McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans, fired off a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Tuesday urging him to come up with a stricter policy for determining who gets released.
They pointed to the case a week ago of two illegal immigrants from Mexico — both of whom news reports said had been repeatedly deported — who were charged with murdering an off-duty Border Patrol agent in Texas.
Yet another illegal immigrant with a criminal record was driving on the wrong side of the road with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit and killed a police officer in Mesa, Arizona, in May, the senators said.
They demanded Mr. Johnson lay out steps to make sure no unplanned releases of illegal immigrants occurs in the future.