Immigration officials knowingly released dozens of murderers and thousands of drunken drivers back into the U.S. in 2013, according to Obama administration statistics that could undercut the president’s argument that he is trying to focus on the most serious criminals in his immigration enforcement.
Among the 36,000 immigrants whom U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released from custody last year there were 116 with convictions for homicide, 43 for negligent manslaughter, 14 for voluntary manslaughter and one with a conviction classified by ICE as “homicide-willful kill-public official-gun.”
The immigrants were in deportation proceedings, meaning ICE was trying to remove them from the country and could have held them in detention but released them anyway, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, which published the numbers Monday. The Washington Times also obtained the data.
“This would be considered the worst prison break in American history, except it was sanctioned by the president and perpetrated by our own immigration officials,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican. “The administration’s actions are outrageous. They willfully and knowingly put the interests of criminal immigrants before the safety and security of the American people.”
The data raised thorny questions about how the government decides which immigrants to detain and which it will release as they await court hearings and final action on deportation.
Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the numbers undercut the Obama administration’s argument that it is trying to keep its enforcement efforts targeted at dangerous criminals.
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“We keep hearing from the administration that they are focused like a laser on enforcement against the worst of the worst, convicted criminals, as their top priority. On the other hand, they are releasing, at a rate of about 100 a day, aliens from their custody with criminal convictions, and many of them are serious criminal convictions,” she said.
In a statement, ICE said many of those it released were subject to electronic monitoring, posting bond or having to check in with officers.
In other cases, the agency was required to release immigrants because of court decisions, including a 2001 Supreme Court ruling that found immigrants whose home countries refused to take them back could not be held for more than six months.
ICE said 75 percent of the convicted murderers released in 2013 were considered “mandatory releases” in compliance with court decisions.
“Others, typically those with less serious offenses, were released as a discretionary matter after career law enforcement officers made a judgment regarding the priority of holding the individual, given ICE’s resources, and prioritizing the detention and removal of individuals who pose a risk to public safety or national security,” ICE said.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will have to answer questions.
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Mr. Goodlatte and Mr. Smith asked ICE for the release numbers but said the agency never turned them over.
“These criminals should be locked up, not roaming our streets,” the lawmakers said.
ICE has told Congress it doesn’t need to hold as many immigrants in detention. In its budget request this year, ICE asked that Congress fund slightly more than 30,500 detention beds a day, down from the 34,000 set in current law.
“This funding level of beds will allow ICE to detain the current mandatory population, as well as the higher-risk, non-mandatory detainees,” ICE Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale testified in March.
Ms. Vaughan said that rings hollow if the administration is releasing murderers and other serious criminals even with 34,000 detention beds.
The 36,007 criminal aliens counted in the data had more than 87,000 convictions among them: 15,635 for drunken driving, 9,187 for what ICE labeled “dangerous drugs,” 2,691 for assault, 1,724 for weapons offenses and 303 for “flight escape” — a category that would seem to make them bad candidates for release.
The immigrants are in addition to the 68,000 other immigrants that ICE officers came across but didn’t put into deportation proceedings.
ICE came under fire last year for releasing thousands of immigrants and blaming it on the sequester budget cuts. Among those released were 622 criminals, including 24 with repeated felony convictions so bad that the administration had to go recapture them.
Officials later said it wasn’t the sequester, but rather the regular budget process that caused them to have to release the immigrants. They said they had been running above the 34,000 detention level for too long and would have had to cut detention to average out the numbers.