Feds free illegal immigrants in Georgia, other states

Several hundred illegal immigrants have been released from detention centers in Georgia and other states, federal officials confirmed Tuesday. They said the releases were made to cut costs in advance of automatic spending cuts that are scheduled to take effect Friday.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials declined to say precisely how many detainees they have freed or where they are being released. But they confirmed some have been freed from the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, 145 miles south of Atlanta.

Critics immediately accused the White House of gamesmanship in the contentious debate over the across-the-board spending cuts, called sequestration. President Barack Obama and Congress have long been at odds over how to handle deficit reduction.

Immigration attorneys welcomed news of the releases, saying the government is acting humanely and saving taxpayer funds by releasing nonviolent detainees to their families. The new development, they said, reflects the Obama administration’s recent efforts to refocus immigration enforcement on violent criminals.

“As fiscal uncertainty remains over … possible sequestration, ICE has reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stay within ICE’s current budget,” the agency said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “Over the last week, ICE has reviewed several hundred cases and placed these individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention.”

Such supervision could include electronic monitoring with ankle bracelets and mandatory appointments with ICE. The federal agency added it has not dropped deportation cases against the detainees it has released and will still remove them if immigration judges order their expulsion.

As of Friday, ICE was holding more than 2,000 immigrants in detention centers located in Atlanta, Gainesville, Lumpkin and Ocilla. It costs ICE $164 per day to detain one inmate, compared to between 30 cents and $14 per day for alternatives to detention, according to a report released last year by the Washington-based National Immigration Forum.

The White House has been issuing dire warnings about the consequences of sequestration this week while pushing Congress to eliminate tax loopholes and deductions along with some government spending. Republicans in Congress have rejected those plans, saying they won’t support tax increases.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appeared to hint something was in the works Monday when she spoke at a White House briefing.

“All I can say is, look, we’re doing our very best to minimize the impacts of sequester,” she said. “But there’s only so much I can do. I’m supposed to have 34,000 detention beds for immigration. How do I pay for those?”

Rosemary Jenks, the director of government affairs for NumbersUSA, said the the government’s move to release the illegal immigrants is a tactic in the deficit-reduction talks.

“They are picking the most obnoxious places wherever they can cut to try to force Republicans into giving in,” said Jenks, whose group supports lower immigration levels.

Amna Shirazi, an Atlanta area immigration attorney, said some of her clients have been released from Stewart Detention Center in the last two weeks, though she did not know if that was tied to spending cuts. She said ICE closely reviewed those cases to ensure they met certain criteria for releasing the immigrants.

“They are all showing up to court,” she said. “We are just not paying for them to be detained, which I think is a great thing.”

Jennifer Bensman, senior program director for immigration services at Catholic Charities, said she has noticed fewer new immigrants coming to Stewart Detention Center in recent weeks. Some of those detained at Stewart are from North Carolina and South Carolina and were arrested for minor traffic offenses, she said.

“It’s about time for something like this,” she said. “I think it is great.”

But Georgia Republicans in Congress blasted the administration’s move.

“Despite President Obama’s attempts to rewrite history, this is his sequester,” said U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta. “And now, rather than governing, he is waging a nationwide public relations campaign warning against his very idea. The bottom line is it’s the spending cuts — not necessarily the sequester itself — that must be implemented.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss also took aim at the White House: “This decision by the Obama administration is just another example of the White House’s skewed priorities for political gain in the ongoing spending-cuts debate,” he said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Mario Guevara of Mundo Hispanico contributed to this article. Mundo Hispanico, like the AJC, is part of Cox Media Group.