An American flag flies at the Mexico border near Sonoita, Ariz. (John Moore / Getty Images )
TUCSON — The release of more than 300 people from immigration detention centers in Arizona — part of a mass release across the nation in anticipation of looming federal budget cuts — sparked outrage among activists on both sides of the political aisle.
Anti-illegal immigration groups and others accused the Obama administration of playing politics, while an immigrant rights group said the incident showed the administration had detained people they shouldn’t have in the first place.
John Hill, executive director of the Phoenix-based anti-illegal immigration group Stand With Arizona, said the Department of Homeland Security was using immigration security as a political weapon.
"The shocking, lawless actions of DHS in releasing thousands of illegal aliens from detention merely to score points on sequestration proves what we have said all along: The DHS is far too politicized to be trusted to implement either the Obama or the 'Gang of 8' immigration reform plans," Hill said in a statement.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said the release of “several hundred” detainees since last Thursday from deportation centers across the nation was in anticipation of spending cuts linked to the so-called budget sequestration, which mandates across-the-board cuts starting Friday unless Congress reaches a compromise.
"As fiscal uncertainty remains over the continuing resolution and possible sequestration, ICE has reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stay within ICE’s current budget,” ICE spokeswoman Amber Cargile said in a statement. “Over the last week, ICE has reviewed several hundred cases and placed these individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention."
Agency officials emphasized that those freed were on supervised release, with telephonic and electronic monitoring.
Cargile, based in Phoenix, said all of the released detainees remained in removal proceedings. She said priority for detention remained on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who are believed to pose a significant threat to public safety.
United We Dream, a youth-led network advocating for the legalization of 11 million people who are in the country illegally, said it took a “manufactured crisis to reunite families.”
“Every day I get calls from families being torn apart with a loved one about to be deported,” Carolina Canizales, coordinator of United We Dream’s End Our Pain Program, said in a statement. “Low-priority individuals — people who pose absolutely no risk or danger to society, but rather are upstanding members of their communities and families — should not have been locked up to begin with.”
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said she was “appalled” by the mass release, adding that it had been done “under the guise of federal budget cuts.”
Immigration officials said they had released 303 detainees since last Thursday from four Arizona facilities: Florence Detention Center, Eloy Detention Center, Pinal County Jail and Central Arizona Detention Center. An estimated 2,280 immigration detainees remain in custody in those facilities.
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu criticized the move, saying it was harming public safety.
“These are illegals that even President Obama wants to deport,” Babeu said in a statement on the sheriff’s department website. “This is insane that public safety is sacrificed when it should be the budget priority that’s safeguarded.”
He contended that ICE agents were paid overtime over the weekend to release 500 detainees from Pinal County Jail alone.
ICE officials contradicted him, saying they had released a total of 52 people from the Pinal County Jail, not 500.
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