As the looming across-the-board government spending cuts known as “the sequester” are set to go into effect on Friday, the Department of Homeland Security has shocked many by releasing hundreds of suspected undocumented immigrant detainees from facilities across the nation. Those released continue to be subject to deportation proceedings. Their removal from detention centers is an early move aimed at saving money ahead of the looming automatic budget cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act, originally passed in 2011. Unless Congress reaches an agreement to stop the cuts by the end of the day Wednesday, sequestration will necessitate spending cuts of approximately $85 billion.
According to ICE, the agency currently spends $2.05 billion annually to hold suspected undocumented immigrants in facilities across the country. Currently, 30,733 individual are in ICE custody. The National Center for Immigration Reform estimates that it costs $164 per day to house individuals in detention facilities.
Those immigrants already released or scheduled to be released by ICE include low risk offenders with no serious criminal histories. Although the agency has already released the majority of those it plans to do so, ICE has cautioned that a substantial number of additional detainees could still be set free if sequestration makes more spending cuts necessary.
In Arizona, 303 immigrant detainees have already been released since last Thursday, according to ICE. This contradicts an announcement made earlier this week by the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, where a spokesman for Sheriff Paul Babeu claimed that over 500 detainees in that county had already been released. With 2,280 suspected undocumented immigrants still in custody, the 303 individuals released is a relatively small figure.
Still, despite the fact that only a small fraction of those in custody in immigrant detention centers have been released, the response from conservative figures has been severe. Ariz. Gov Jan Brewer called the move “pure political posturing” on the part of President Obama, arguing that the United States was turning toward a “catch-and-release” immigration enforcement system. Brewer argued that the move has little in fact to do with budget cuts, but rather is a political move hiding under the guise of sequestration.
The release of individuals from immigrant detention centers is perhaps the first publicly felt manifestation of the sequester, but it is likely not to be the last. As automatic budget cuts go into effect throughout the government, it is unclear precisely what the impact will be on the general public.