Monday, March 4, 2013

Sequester Forces ICE to Release Detained Unauthorized Immigrants

Over the course of the last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released hundreds of detained unauthorized immigrants and the agency has announced that it plans to release thousands more in the upcoming months. All of the detainees have pending deportation hearings.

For several hundred of the detainees, ICE has justified the releases on the basis of the looming sequester budget cuts that are scheduled to cut 4 billion from the Department of Homeland Security's budget. ICE also labels the released individuals as "low-risk."

Apparently everyone has managed to find fault with ICE's actions. Immigration proponents believe that ICE's actions demonstrate why these individuals should not have been detained in the first place. After all, if they weren't a threat to the community, then why spend the money to keep them incarcerated, particularly if they have families in the United States.

Some immigration opponents believe that the Obama administration is sacrificing public safety to score political points, using the release of incarcerated immigrants to highlight the unavoidable effects of the sequester's forced budget cuts.

Some detention facilities have released many detainees because of the looming budget hit while others haven't release any. There may be some budgetary considerations that account for the discrepancy, but it doesn't appear that ICE has made that clear. What ICE did say was that the released individuals do not pose a danger to public safety.

USA Today story noted that "in Burlington, Ky., the 50 illegal immigrants released from the Boone County Jail had been charged with a crime other than being in the United States illegally." So someone reading this and thinking about the no risk to public safety claim might question how this is the case. First of all, the commission of a crime does not automatically make someone a danger to the public. It depends on the crime. But second, in all fairness, an agency can never predict with complete certainty whether a released individual will subsequently engage in inappropriate conduct; risk assessments are always a matter of degree.

In terms of ICE's motives for the release, the Obama administration has earned the benefit of the doubt that the releases are not a political calculation and truly are about budget cuts. The President has earned this benefit of the doubt by virtue of his tough detention policies over the last few years and the record number of deportations that his administration has authorized. Of course, political calculations could be a tangential consideration when assessing the policy even if it is not the driving force. But it's important to remember that the President himself does not have a hand in every decision made within every administrative agency such as ICE.

But this does bring up the more general point of whether the government should be spending the resources to detain so many illegal immigrants while their deportation proceedings are pending. On the one hand, detention is expensive and taxpayers are picking up the bill. Moreover, most of the unauthorized immigrants released from detention pending their hearings will not commit any crimes in the interim. And to the extent they have families, family reunification is always an admirable justification.

On the other hand, even if the probability is low, there is a chance that some of the released individuals will go on to commit crimes. Even if you don't believe this low probability justifies such widespread incarceration, it's not a stretch to concede this realization. Another argument against release is that even if an unauthorized immigrant has not committed a crime, their very presence in the United States is still a violation of the law.

Lurking in the background of this debate is the detention industrial complex: a group of privately owned detention facilities who strongly benefit economically when the government detains unauthorized immigrants. To the extent decision-making is in any way influenced by the lobbying efforts of such organizations, there is a serious problem. Hopefully, at the very least, we can all agree on that.

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