Top Republican lawmakers are pushing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to account for immigration authorities’ decision to free hundreds of detainees ahead of upcoming sequester cuts.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) sent a joint letter to Napolitano on Thursday suggesting that dangerous individuals may have been released. Goodlatte chairs the House Judiciary Committee, and Grassley is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Both committees over the Department of Homeland Security.
The detainee policy has rapidly become a major topic on the right, with many Republicans suggesting the move was either a conspiracy to frighten Americans over the effects of the sequester or a plot to please Latino groups upset oversee the administration’s record numbers of deportations.
“We are concerned about reports that the Department is already taking action to implement sequestration by releasing criminal aliens from detention facilities and seriously putting the safety of the public at risk,” they wrote.
A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement told TPM that the several hundred freed detainees were “non-criminals and other low risk offenders who do not have serious criminal histories that would subject them to mandatory detention.” Only 55 percent of deportees in 2012 were convicted criminals, leaving a large pool of detainees who would likely qualify under such a policy. A report by the Huffington Post last year analyzing 32,000 detainees held on a single day in October 2011 found 40 percent had no criminal record at all.
But Grassley and Goodlatte wrote that they had heard unspecified reports indicating that “ICE is ‘mass releasing’ aliens convicted of fraud, theft, or drunk driving offenses, as these aliens are not considered to be subject to mandatory detention.” They also raised concerns over unnamed reports of “illegal aliens who are documented gang members and those who have been arrested for but not convicted of a serious crime are also being released.”
Napolitano warned earlier this week that cuts to immigration enforcement were inevitable thanks to a 5 percent reduction in funding, a claim that Grassley and Goodlatte called into question as well.
“While the administration is clearly embarking on a campaign to scare the public and Congress about the realities of budget reductions, it is clear that you have not planned adequately for the March 1 sequestration,” the letter reads.
The two Republicans are demanding more information by the end of next week on the types of immigrants affected by the detainee policy as well as specific details on DHS funding. More specifically, they want to know much is being spent on “executive travel” and “conference spending” in light of the sequester.
Update: Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for ICE, Gillian Christensen, reiterated that the agency prioritized “serious criminal offenders” in deciding who to release.
“ICE & DHS will respond to Senator Grassley and Congressman Goodlatte directly,” she said in a statement. “As fiscal uncertainty remains over the continuing resolution and possible sequestration, ICE has reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stay within ICE’s current budget. Over the last week, ICE has reviewed several hundred cases and placed these individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention. All of these individuals remain in removal proceedings. Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.