Why ICE Released Those 2,000 Immigrant Detainees

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton speaks during a news conference at ICE headquarters in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton speaks during a news conference at ICE headquarters in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

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.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE



In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

Of the 5 States with the Most Farmworkers, Only 3 Are Prioritizing Vaccines — and Not All Means of Prioritizing Are Equal, per the CDC
Months after the July 2020 film "COVID's Hidden Toll," FRONTLINE checked in with farmworkers in California and four other big agricultural states and found vaccine rollouts have been uneven.
April 16, 2021
The War in Afghanistan: As Biden Sets U.S. Withdrawal Date, 13 Documentaries Explore the Conflict and Its Impact
Explore nearly two decades of reporting from FRONTLINE on America’s longest war.
April 15, 2021
After Jan. 6, Investigating the Contours of a “Broad Fascist Movement” in the U.S.
In a scene from the new documentary “American Insurrection,” correspondent A.C. Thompson talks with sociologist Pete Simi about the state of domestic extremism in the U.S.
April 14, 2021
“I Felt Hate More Than Anything”: How an Active Duty Airman Tried to Start a Civil War
Steven Carrillo’s path to the Boogaloo Bois shows the hate group is far more organized and dangerous than previously known.
April 13, 2021