Immigration Officials Release Detainees Ahead Of Budget Cuts

Audie Cornish talks to Ted Robbins about reaction to the Obama administration's decision to release immigrant detainees. The move was attributed to budget cuts.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

A striking announcement came today from federal immigration officials. They say they are releasing immigrants from detention centers around the country. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, says the move is necessary because of looming budget cuts. NPR's Ted Robbins follows immigration for us and joins us now. And, Ted, to start, I mean, just how unusual is this for detained immigrants to be released in this way?

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Audie, no one I spoke with can remember it ever happening. The government has been steadily increasing the number of immigrant detainees over the last decade, so to have this sudden release is really unusual. Apparently, it began over the weekend. ICE is saying it's because the agency has to, quote, "make the best use of limited detention resources in the current fiscal climate."

CORNISH: So who qualifies for release and just how many people are we talking about?

ROBBINS: ICE hasn't said exactly how many, but I got an email this afternoon saying that they have reviewed several hundred cases and placed individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention. That's the way they put it.

One sheriff in Arizona says 500 people were released from a large detention facility in Florence and Eloy, Arizona. No confirmation on that particular thing, but I wouldn't be surprised if the number rises to a few thousand by the time it's over. Everyone released is still in removal proceedings, meaning deportation. So it's important to say that the cases are not being dropped.

As for who, ICE says low-priority detainees. And it's defined low priority before as minors, the elderly, veterans, victims of domestic violence, longtime permanent residents. Those are just some examples.

In a statement today, ICE said it was not releasing serious criminal offenders and other individuals who, quote, "pose a significant threat to public safety." I think you can infer, though, that some people may have been convicted of, say, misdemeanors and been released.

CORNISH: So what's the reaction been so far? I can imagine in Arizona, I mean, this has been such a contentious issue.

ROBBINS: Yeah. And then let's point out that these are detention centers all over the country. But Arizona Republican Governor Jan Brewer said she was appalled. Pinal Arizona County Sheriff Babeu, also an immigration hawk, says it's insane, saying that public safety is being sacrificed. Immigrant rights groups have actually been giving sort of backhanded compliments, though. They've been saying for a long time that detaining anybody but serious criminals or terrorists are breaking up families and is just wrong, and people accused of immigration violations, for instance, can be detained for years while waiting for cases to come up before a judge.

They're ticked, though, that it took the threat of budget cuts to make those happen. And remember, President Obama has been - despite his push for immigration reform, his administration has deported more people than any other president, more than 400,000 people last year.

CORNISH: Just a few seconds left, Ted, but first some context, how many people are in the federal immigration detention centers right now?

ROBBINS: The government has about 34,000 beds at any given time, some run by itself, some run by private prison corporations and some from county jails. That's the total number at any given time.

CORNISH: NPR's Ted Robbins covers immigration. Ted, thank you.

ROBBINS: You're welcome.

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