The Obama administration’s decision to release some immigrants awaiting deportation back into the community has spawned a furious backlash from Congress, where stunned lawmakers have besieged the Homeland Security Department with questions.
Department officials have described the move as a cost-savings measure required by the budget sequesters, but two years ago one top official testified to Congress that detaining immigrants is usually cheaper than releasing them.
As the questions build, so does pressure on Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano, who has not yet answered the requests, signed by dozens of Senate and House members, to detail who exactly has been released, why they were being held in the first place, and who gave final approval.
“It is frankly irresponsible that your agency chose releasing detained immigrants as its first effort to control spending,” a group of 37 House Republicans, led by Reps. Matt Salmon of Arizona and Duncan Hunter of California, said in a letter Friday.
On Monday, Sen. Daniel Coats, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee that oversees immigration, took to the Senate floor to say the department cannot duck his questions. He speculated that the release has already spurred a new wave of illegal immigration.
“I can see the traffickers pitching this to tens or hundreds of thousands of people, taking their money, getting them across the border, breaching the fence or tunneling under the fence or climbing over the fence,” Mr. Coats said.
An internal ICE memo obtained and released last week by the House Judiciary Committee found that the agency contemplated releasing 1,000 immigrants a week — far more than the several hundred it said it released.
By the end of March, ICE would be detaining fewer than 26,000 immigrants, or 5,000 fewer than in mid-February. Congress has given ICE funding to detain about 34,000 on any given day, but the agency had been running at about 36,500 on the average day, meaning it was already over budget even before the sequesters.
ICE has blamed both the sequesters and “fiscal uncertainty” stemming from the 2013 appropriations process for the cuts. Congress only passed funding for half of the year, and must approve the other half by March 27.
Administration officials said that while they have released immigrants, they pose little danger to the community, and all of them are still being supervised, either through electronic device or by a check-in requirement.
“These decisions were made on a case-by-case basis, by career law enforcement officials in the field, in order to ensure that ICE maintained sufficient resources to detain serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety through the end of the continuing resolution,” the agency said in a statement.
Among the questions Mr. Hunter, Mr. Salmon and their colleagues are asking is how many immigrants were reviewed but denied release, what other budget cuts the agency made before deciding to do releases, and what sort of tracking is being used on those who were released.
ICE has said it cannot divide out which immigrants were released because of budget constraints versus other reasons.
But whether releasing immigrants saves money is now being called into question.
Two years ago, ICE Director John Morton testified to Congress that it was often cheaper to detain immigrants than to release and monitor them.
He said those who are released are usually lower-priority immigrants who don’t get deported as quickly, so they tend to stay in the system longer and therefore cost more in the long run.
“It actually ends up being cheaper when people are in detention because they move much more quickly,” he said.