Homeland Security is leaving thousands of detention beds empty even as it voluntarily releases thousands of murderers, kidnappers and other criminals, the chief of deportations admitted to Congress on Thursday as she faced families of those killed by freed illegal immigrant convicts.
“We strive for perfect, but we are human and we fall short sometimes,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah R. Saldana told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Ms. Saldana said the agency now has 2,000 beds vacant out of the 34,000 it is supposed to have available on the average day.
Government statistics show that in 2015, ICE averaged 28,168 detainees — meaning some 5,800 beds left unused, even as the agency released dangerous convicts back into the community to await the outcomes of their immigration proceedings.
One of those people released last year was Jean Jacques, a Haitian who served time for attempted murder and whom ICE tried to deport, but whom Haiti refused to take back. ICE released him, and he would go on to stab a young woman, Casey Chadwick, in her Connecticut apartment.
“If ICE and Homeland Security had done their job, Casey would not have died,” her mother, Wendy Hartling, told lawmakers just minutes after Ms. Saldana testified.
Both Democrats and Republicans were inclined to agree, demanding answers about why officials let Haiti stymie Jacques’ deportation last year.
Ms. Saldana blamed the State Department, saying it’s that agency’s call on how much pressure to use on other governments. But lawmakers weren’t satisfied, pointing to the law that says it’s up to the immigration service to start the process by reporting other countries’ bad behavior.
Ms. Saldana insisted she’s made those reports, but couldn’t remember which countries she’d cited. Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz demanded she provide all of those letters within a week — and he warned her not to try to hide behind secrecy.
“Let’s know and understand which countries are not taking back the criminals that came here illegally,” he said.
In 2015 ICE released 19,723 criminals back into communities while they were awaiting their immigration trials.
Some 10,175 of those were released on bond by an immigration judge — Ms. Saldana couldn’t say how often her officers object to that bond — and 2,166 others were released because they’d been held the maximum amount of time allowed under a 2001 Supreme Court ruling.
But while 89 criminals were released because their countries wouldn’t take them back — the situation Jacques was in — another 7,293 were released at ICE’s own discretion. It’s that last category that has Congress furious, particularly with more than 5,800 detention beds that went empty last year.
“We just keep pouring more and more money into your agency, and we keep getting less and less,” Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., Tennessee Republican, told Ms. Saldana. “Are you embarrassed in any way?”
Ms. Saldana blamed Congress, saying the law only requires ICE to hold some criminals. She said if lawmakers want her to detain all murderers, they’ll need to write it into the law.
She also said about two-thirds of the releases last year were pursuant to court orders or to a 2001 Supreme Court decision, so her office is only responsible for about 7,000 of the criminals put on the streets.
“To sit there and say that the proud women and men of law enforcement and ICE are choosing to release criminals is absolutely unforgivable,” she said. “They do not go around trying to put criminals on the streets.”
Thursday’s hearing was the latest in a string of difficult appearances before Congress.
Last year, testifying to the same committee, she threw her support behind legislation that would have cracked down on sanctuary cities — then, within a day, she renounced her comments after feeling tremendous pressure from immigrant rights groups.
At another hearing she gave a grossly inflated estimate of the number of illegal immigrants to Congress, saying it could be as high as 15 million. On Thursday she gave a different number of 11.2 million — much closer to the estimates of most experts.
On Thursday she stepped off on a wrong foot from the start of her testimony by criticizing the committee’s inquiry into criminal releases as “political banter.” She later said she didn’t intend to target Republicans with that attack.