The administration released dozens of convicted illegal immigrant murderers and rapists back onto the streets last year, even as it began to hold more women and children, according to the latest statistics that have President Obama and his immigration team taking fire from all sides in the debate.
Republicans said releasing murderers and rapists, as well as thousands of drunken-drivers, drug users, burglars and thieves is the latest step for an administration bent on ignoring enforcement, confronting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldana over her agency’s record.
The 30,558 criminal aliens released into the community by ICE in 2014 had amassed 250 homicide convictions, 186 kidnappings and 373 sexual assaults, according to agency statistics put into the official records of the House Judiciary Committee.
“The nonsensical actions of this administration demonstrate its lack of desire to enforce the law even against unlawful aliens convicted of serious crimes,” said Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and chairman of the committee.
Even as she was accused of releasing serious criminals, Ms. Saldana faced charges from the political left that she was treating noncriminal refugees too harshly. Illegal immigrant mothers who have fled Central America as part of the latest surge of border-jumpers said they and their children are being subject to poor treatment and deserve to be set free.
They announced a hunger strike to take place at the Karnes Detention County Residential Center, a detention facility in Texas run by ICE and designed to accommodate some of the thousands of families that have streamed across the border in recent months.
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“I demand that all of the women be released,” Kenia Galeano, a 26-year-old illegal immigrant mother who took part in an earlier hunger strike but who has been set free pending her request for asylum, told reporters.
Trapped in the middle was Ms. Saldana, who took over as director of ICE in December, facing the tricky task of implementing Mr. Obama’s new guidelines carving most illegal immigrants out of any danger of deportation while still trying to keep her agents in the field and focused on serious criminals.
Ms. Saldana said she’s concerned about how many criminals her agency released into the community in 2014, and said she’s already ordered that future releases have to be approved by managers.
But she said she doesn’t have discretion with many of the immigrants. She said she’s required under the laws passed by Congress to grant due process to everyone, and said both court decisions and federal law require her to make judgments about whom to hold.
“Even the Congress contemplated some people would be released,” Ms. Saldana told the Judiciary Committee.
In her months in office Ms. Saldana has had to oversee Mr. Obama’s new immigration guidelines, which direct her agents to stop trying to deport illegal immigrants unless they are deemed national security or public safety risks, have amassed a serious criminal record or arrived over the last 15 months.
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She admitted that meant an illegal immigrant who arrived in December 2013 and has even been ordered deported by a judge wouldn’t be a priority for removal because it doesn’t fit the president’s priorities.
She said she had no idea how many of the estimated 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country would still be eligible to be removed under Mr. Obama’s plans, and said she doesn’t know anyone who’s run those numbers.
For their part, Democrats questioned the deportation last month of a Mennonite pastor who had U.S.-citizen children but who came to authorities’ attention because of a years-old drunken-driving conviction and a long-term order for deportation. Democratic lawmakers also urged her not to detain illegal immigrant families — particularly mothers with their children — saying the conditions they face are inhumane.
“In my view there’s no way to detain families humanely,” said Rep. Judy Chu, California Democrat.
Ms. Saldana said she couldn’t talk about specific cases, but defended her agents and officers. She also said she’s visited one of the detention centers where illegal immigrant mothers and their children are held, and she has plans to visit the others to see conditions.
Mr. Goodlatte praised Ms. Saldana for being more forthcoming with information about her agency’s operations than her predecessors, saying it helped lawmakers prepare for the contentious hearing.
“I know you’ve been getting it from both sides here,” Mr. Goodlatte told her.