Illegal immigrants are being released from detention across the country on their promise to return for future court dates because of possible upcoming federal budget cuts, Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed.
While the total number of people who have been released has not made public by ICE, an official with firsthand knowledge of the agency's effort said more than 100 people had been released from the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona alone. The effort started last week.
"In order to make the best use of our limited detention resources in the current fiscal climate and to manage our detention population under current congressionally mandated levels, ICE has directed field offices to review the detained population to ensure it is in line with available funding," agency spokeswoman Gillian Christensen, said Monday in a written statement.
Detainees were placed on an "appropriate, more cost-effective form of supervised release," she said. And "ICE is continuing to prosecute their cases in immigration court, and when ordered, will seek (arrestees') removal from the country."
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is expected to absorb about $4 billion of the $85 billion in possible "sequestration" cuts, Secretary Janet Napolitano has said.
The agency's move took everyone by surprise - even immigration attorneys whose clients were being released.
Local Tucson attorney Jesse Evans-Schroeder said she's gotten calls from four clients who were released since Friday.
One of her clients who had been held at the Eloy facility for more than two years because she couldn't afford the $10,000 bond called her from San Jose, Calif., Monday to say many people were released over the weekend, Evans-Schroeder said.
"I didn't know what was going on, but then got a bunch of phone calls from clients, from people wondering why they hadn't been released and others wondering why they had been released so promptly," she said.
Soon after, immigration attorneys from across the country started to post on an American Immigration Lawyers Association's online mailing list asking what was going on, she said.
It appears that many of the people being released had bond amounts they were unable to pay, Evans-Schroeder said.
"We've heard every facility has been releasing individuals on a case-by-case basis across the country," she said.
"This is not the end of their case, and everyone still has to report to immigration court and complete their case, but it makes it so much easier for people to get adequate legal representation when they are released," she added.
ICE is the largest investigative agency in the department with more than 20,000 employees worldwide. Last fiscal year, ICE requested a budget of nearly $6 billion.
"Under sequestration, ICE would be forced to reduce current detention and removal operations, potentially affecting public safety, and would not be able to maintain 34,000 detention beds as mandated by Congress," Napolitano told Congress.
It costs about $164 per day at a capacity of 32,800 daily detention beds, according to the National Immigration Forum, an organization that advocates for immigrants.
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Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo.