The administration this year hasn’t been able to find enough illegal immigrants to fill the 34,000 detention beds the law requires, as President Obama’s new policies kick in and agents spend more time and money going after each immigrant they do detain.
But even as beds go empty, some illegal immigrants who were set free by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or approved under Mr. Obama’s 2012 amnesty have gone on to commit horrific crimes, including murder.
“How many Americans killed by illegal aliens are too many?” said Jamiel Shaw, who testified to Congress on Wednesday that his son was killed by a so-called Dreamer, approved for tentative legal status under the 2012 policy Mr. Obama is trying to expand. “Dream Act kids have turned my family’s American dream into a nightmare.”
Another victim’s relative, Michael Ronnebeck, testified to the House oversight committee that his nephew, 21-year-old Grant Ronnebeck, was killed by an illegal immigrant who was awaiting deportation but who had been released from custody by ICE because the government didn’t deem him a threat.
Those released have become controversial as ICE grapples with Mr. Obama’s new deportation policies, struggles to determine whom to hold and whom to release and faces growing resistance from sanctuary states and cities that refuse to cooperate with immigration agents.
As of Jan. 25, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was averaging only slightly more than 27,000 detainees a day for fiscal year 2015, which began Oct. 1. That means more than 20 percent of its 34,000-bed capacity was going unused so far this year.
Deportations are also down dramatically, according to Jessica Vaughan, who studies enforcement trends for the Center for Immigration Studies, and who told Congress on Wednesday that the administration deported fewer than 20,000 immigrants in December, which is about 50 percent lower than its usual pace for the month over the last few years.
“All of the significant metrics of enforcement activity tracked by ICE — encounters, arrests, detainers and charging documents issued — show declines in recent years,” Ms. Vaughan said in prepared testimony for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
ICE is the interior enforcement and deportation arm of the Department of Homeland Security. Mr. Obama last year ordered the department to stop trying to apprehend and deport most illegal immigrants, saying that unless they have a serious criminal record or crossed the border since Jan. 1, 2014, they aren’t important enough to be worth the expense of deportation.
Ms. Vaughan said the detention beds are a major issue since it means ICE is releasing some illegal immigrants to be out in the community even as they are awaiting deportation, giving them a chance to abscond — and often to commit crimes while out on the streets.
Congress has mandated that ICE have an average daily population, or ADP, of 34,000 beds available on any day to hold illegal immigrants, but Ms. Vaughan said the administration has shown an “unwillingness” to follow through on actually keeping them.
Both ICE and a key lawmaker contend that while Congress mandates 34,000 beds, not all of them need to be filled.
And the agency says it won’t end up paying for all of the unused beds at the end of the year, saying some of the beds it contracts for are handled by a “pay-as-you-use” method.
“In the event that ICE does not meet the 34,000 ADP, ICE will adjust the facility usage so that the facilities with fixed monthly rates are used to their maximum capacity, which, in turn, reduces the use of the ‘pay-as-you-use’ facilities,” an agency official said.
ICE blamed several issues for the lack of illegal immigrants to fill the beds, including the rising costs of handling them. Part of that is because some state and local government agencies now refuse to cooperate with federal agents, releasing illegal immigrants from prisons and jails rather than holding them for ICE to come pick up.
“The arrest of an individual where ICE’s detainer was not honored may take 30 to 40 man-hours since ICE officers must track down the individual and make the arrest out in the community,” an agency official told The Washington Times. “This greatly increases officer and public safety risks as well as greatly decreas[es] agency efficiency.”
In 2014, local governments refused to hold 12,175 immigrants that ICE had requested be kept for pickup, the agency said.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said Mr. Obama has “gutted” interior enforcement of immigration laws, and said part of the problem is that the administration won’t put pressure on the states that are refusing to cooperate with federal agents.
Mr. Obama also canceled the Secure Communities program that automatically checked state and local inmates against federal databases to see if they should be picked up for deportation.
“As a result of these foolish polices, the number of unlawful or criminal aliens that ICE has removed from the interior of the country has fallen by more than half since 2008,” Mr. Goodlatte said.
Democrats on the oversight committee said the courts have tied ICE’s hands and forced some of the releases, and said in other cases Congress has starved the Homeland Security Department of money.
But the victims’ stories from Wednesday’s oversight committee hearing did shock lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who called them a “tragedy.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, and Sen. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, wrote a letter to ICE Director Sarah Saldana demanding details about the convenience store clerk who was allegedly killed by an illegal immigrant who had been released on bond while awaiting deportation.
While out on bond, the illegal immigrant had two injunctions entered against him by a state court that found he was harassing others, including brandishing a gun at one person and threatening to kill another.
But ICE allowed him to remain out on bond because his original offense was only a conviction for burglary.
“What would it have taken for ICE to revoke bond in this case?” the senators wrote.
Sacramento, California, County Sheriff Scott Jones told the committee that ICE used to demand that localities hold illegal immigrants for deportation, but under Mr. Obama the agency no longer considers its detainers mandatory, so states and localities now feel free to ignore them.
While illegal immigrants who show up for their trial and are convicted of new crimes are still able to be apprehended, those at the beginning of the criminal process who are arrested are usually released before ICE can get to them.
“According to ICE officials, in-custody arrests are down 95 percent from just a year ago,” the sheriff said