Why ICE Released Those 2,000 Immigrant Detainees

March 19, 2013
Watch Lost in Detention, FRONTLINE’s investigation with the Investigative Reporting Workshop into the Obama administration’s get-tough immigration policy.

Last month, the Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) quietly announced that in order to cut costs, it had released 2,000 undocumented immigrants it was holding in detention.

But for the most part, those who were released were people who didn’t need to be detained in the first place, according to congressional testimony today by ICE Director John Morton.

“In early February, ICE was maintaining an average daily population in excess of 35,000 individuals, including many who did not require detention by law,” he told the House Judiciary Committee in prepared remarks (pdf).

Morton said that ICE only has a budget to hold about 34,000 people daily. To cut costs, the 2,228 detainees were released with some condition, such as on bond or with an ankle bracelet. All remain in deportation proceedings.

About 70 percent of those released had no criminal record and therefore don’t lawfully need to be detained while awaiting deportation, Morton said. The remaining 30 percent were those with misdemeanors or nonviolent criminals who didn’t pose a threat to public safety.

Only a handful were considered serious offenders, Morton said, though none had committed violent crimes such as rape or murder. Four have since been returned to detention. The others had extenuating circumstances, such as one case in which a 68-year-old detainee had committed a drug offense many years earlier. He said the office would continue to review the other cases and return them to custody if necessary.

One congressman questioned why the nonviolent, noncriminal defenders had been detained at all. “It looks to me like maybe there’s an overuse of detention by this administration,” said Rep. Spencer Bachus, (R-Ala.), a conservative who has called for immigration reform.

“If these people are not public safety risks, if they’re not violent, if they don’t have a criminal history, if they’re not repeat offenders, if they’re going to show up for proceedings — why are they detained at all?” Bachus asked. “Why are we spending $164 a day on them?”

His time expired before Morton had a chance to answer. But later, in response to another question, Morton said ICE’s deportation rate is an effort to follow its mandate.

“A big part of this is comprehensive immigration reform. We are charged with removing 11 million people and that number is obviously beyond our capacity,” Morton said, referring to the number of undocumented immigrants believed to be in the U.S. “And for many of the long-term residents, frankly, it doesn’t make any sense either as a matter of policy.”

Under the Obama administration, ICE has set a target to deport about 400,000 undocumented immigrants each year.

In 2008, only 33 percent of those deported had criminal convictions. Last year that number reached 55 percent.

The administration’s detention and deportation policy has been criticized by human-rights groups, who say the government has been unnecessarily sweeping up nonviolent immigrants in its dragnet, even those with children who are U.S. citizens.

Human Rights Watch said in a recent statement opposing the government’s policy that the U.S. can in some cases allow immigrants with family ties to remain in the country, but caps that quota at 4,000 per year. In the past two years, about 200,000 such immigrants have been deported.

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