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Homeland Security's odd timing on releasing immigrant detainees

February 28, 2013|By Sandra Hernandez
  • U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. (Alex Wong/Getty Images )

The Department of Homeland Security began releasing immigrants from detention centers across the country this week, in anticipation of looming budget cuts.

Contrary to what some Republicans in Congress have said, those released are not criminals but rather low-risk detainees, such as asylum-seekers, foreign nationals who overstayed visas and undocumented immigrants arrested for minor offenses who were granted bail but were unable to post the money. In other words, immigrants who pose no risk to public safety but are still facing deportation trials.

What it is puzzling about the move, however, is the timing. The Department of Homeland Security has suggested that sequestration forced it to lower the number of immigrants held in detention. On any given day, some 32,000 immigrants are held in a patchwork of privately run facilities, local jails and federal detention centers.

Though it is true that Homeland Security and other agencies are facing deep cuts, the government has up to seven months to spread out the impact of reductions. Nothing required the agency to act now. It isn’t as if the federal government runs out of money Friday or that Homeland Security can’t make its payroll.

I think Homeland Security officials owe the public a better explanation of the fiscal reasons behind the abrupt release policy, and why these immigrants were held in the first place.

If these immigrants pose little risk to public safety and the agency is able to supervise them using electronic monitors and other tools, why wasn’t that done in the first place? It is far cheaper than detention, which costs an average of about $122 a day per immigrant.

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