WASHINGTON - The Homeland Security Department released from its jails more than 2,000 illegal immigrants facing deportation in recent weeks due to looming budget cuts and planned to release 3,000 more during March, The Associated Press has learned.
The newly disclosed figures, cited in internal budget documents reviewed by the AP, are significantly higher than the "few hundred" illegal immigrants the Obama administration acknowledged this week had been released under the budget-savings process.
The government documents show that Immigration and Customs Enforcement released roughly 1,000 illegal immigrants from its jails around the U.S. each week since at least Feb. 15. The agency's field offices have reported more than 2,000 immigrants released before intense criticism this week led to a temporary shutdown of the plan, according to the documents.
The states where immigrants were released include Arizona, California, Georgia and Texas.
The White House has said it was not consulted about the releases, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has acknowledged they occurred in a manner she regrets. White House spokesman Jay Carney on Wednesday said the government had released "a few hundred" of the roughly 30,000 illegal immigrants held in federal detention pending deportation proceedings. Carney said the immigrants released were "low-risk, noncriminal detainees," and the decision was made by career ICE officials.
ICE spokesman Brian Hale said Friday the numbers of immigration detainees fluctuate daily, but he reiterated only several hundred illegal immigrants had been released.
"Beyond that normal movement, and as fiscal uncertainty remains over the continuing resolution and possible sequestration, ICE reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stay within ICE's current budget and placed several hundred individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention," Hale said in a statement.
The immigrants who were released still eventually face deportation and are required to appear for upcoming court hearings. But they are no longer confined in immigration jails, where advocacy experts say they cost about $164 per day per person.
Immigrants who are granted supervised release - with conditions that can include mandatory check-ins, home visits and GPS devices - cost the government from 30 cents to $14 a day, according to the National Immigration Forum, a group that advocates on behalf of immigrants.
The release of thousands from immigration jails is consistent with Napolitano's early warnings on Monday - hours before anyone knew publicly that any illegal immigrants had been released - that the pending, automatic budget cuts known as the sequester would limit the government's ability to maintain enough detention center beds for at least 34,000 immigrants.
"We're doing our very best to minimize the impacts of sequester, but there's only so much I can do," Napolitano said Monday. "You know, I'm supposed to have 34,000 detention beds for immigration. How do I pay for those?"
Late Thursday, after intense criticism over what the administration acknowledged was the release this week of several hundred immigrants, Napolitano told ABC News that she had been surprised to learn about the action.
"Detainee populations and how that is managed back and forth is really handled by career officials in the field," Napolitano told ABC. "Do I wish that this all hadn't been done all of a sudden and so that people weren't surprised by it? Of course."
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