Most of the illegal immigrant criminals Homeland Security officials released from custody last year were discretionary, meaning the department could have kept them in detention but chose instead to let them onto the streets as their deportation cases moved through the system, according to new numbers from Congress.
Some of those released were the worst of the worst — more than 3,700 “Threat Level 1” criminals, who are deemed the top priority for deportation, were still released out into the community even as they waited for their immigration cases to be heard.
Homeland Security officials have implied their hands are tied by court rulings in many cases, but the numbers, obtained by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, showed 57 percent of the criminals released were by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s own choice, and they could have been kept instead.
“Put aside the spin, and the fact is that over 17,000 of the criminal aliens released last year were released due to ICE discretion, representing 57 percent of the releases,” said Mr. Goodlatte. “The Obama administration’s lax enforcement policies are reckless and needlessly endanger our communities.”
In a statement to The Washington Times, ICE said it takes release decisions seriously and makes a judgment in each case. That holds true even for Threat Level 1 criminals.
“Not all Level 1 criminal aliens are subject to mandatory detention and thus may be eligible for bond,” the agency said, pointing to mitigating circumstances that can convince agents to release the most serious criminals.
“ICE personnel making custody determinations also take into consideration humanitarian factors such as deteriorated health, advanced age, and caretaking responsibilities. All custody determinations are made on a case-by-case basis taking into consideration the totality of circumstances in each case,” the agency said.
ICE officials insist that those who are released are still monitored, often by electronic ankle bracelets but also through a system of phone checks or by paying a bond.
However, nearly all of those released under electronic monitoring broke the terms of their release, according to ICE numbers.
In fiscal year 2014, ICE put about 41,000 immigrants through electronic monitoring, and more than 30,000 of them broke the terms of their release — many of them racking up multiple violations. All told, they notched nearly 300,000 violations in one year alone, or an average of 10 instances per violator.
The rate has gone down slightly so far in fiscal year 2015. Of the 34,002 immigrants put into electronic monitoring, 27,317 have broken the rules a combined 162,322 times.
ICE said violations can include what they deem minor problems, such as someone lacking a strong enough cell signal for voice verification by phone or someone calling in too early or a few minutes late. Low batteries or jostling an electronic bracelet during sports can also cause a monitoring alarm to go off incorrectly, ICE said.
Of the more than 30,000 detainees who broke the conditional terms of their release and monitoring in 2014, only 2,420 were deemed to have been serious enough breaches to rearrest them.
Part of ICE’s problem is that it doesn’t have enough beds to go out and pick up violators, according to an inspector general’s report released earlier this year.
Agency officials said they would like to be able to hold those who willfully break the rules, but they haven’t requested more beds. Indeed, Mr. Obama’s 2016 budget request actually asked for fewer beds to hold detainees next year, arguing that he wants to put more emphasis on the very alternatives that are being violated.
ICE’s treatment of those awaiting their deportation proceedings has been controversial for several years.
In 2013, the agency released 36,007 convicted criminals who were awaiting the outcome of their deportation cases. Those released had amassed 116 homicide convictions, 15,635 drunken driving convictions and 9,187 convictions stemming from what ICE labeled involvement with “dangerous drugs.”
The total dropped to about 30,000 in 2014 — but the seriousness of the offenses increased, with 193 homicide convictions among the detainees and 16,070 drunken driving convictions. There were also 426 sexual assaults and 303 kidnapping convictions, ICE said.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and ICE Director Sarah Saldana said the numbers were unacceptable and imposed new rules requiring releases to be vetted by senior agency officials to make sure they were correct.
Both Mr. Johnson and Ms. Saldana also said many of the releases are required and give them little discretion — particularly those made under a 2001 Supreme Court decision known as the Zadvydas case, when the justices ruled that immigrants couldn’t generally be detained indefinitely.
That means that if a home country won’t take someone back, ICE must release them after about six months.
But the new numbers obtained by Mr. Goodlatte suggest Zadvydas-related releases were fewer than 2,500 in 2014, or only about 8 percent of the total — compared to the 57 percent that ICE admits were completely discretionary.
The rest of the releases were divided between cases where an immigration judge ordered bond or where ICE was unable to obtain travel documents but it wasn’t considered a mandatory release under the Zadvydas ruling.