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The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency has released hundreds of immigration detainees ahead of Friday's sequester deadline. The decision was made to help bring down the agency's budget, in light of the automatic spending cuts. ICE officials are getting both praise and a lot of heat for the unusual move. NPR's Ted Robbins has the story.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: ICE has released people from some of the nation's 250 immigration detention centers. Immigrant rights advocates have qualified praise for what the release means to families. Carolina Canizales is an organizer with United We Dream.
CAROLINA CANIZALES: I mean, how can I say it? When you're separated from your mom and you haven't seen her, like, in three years because she's been detained, and then you get to hug her, will that be a good thing or a bad thing? You know, of course it's going to be a good thing for people.
ROBBINS: The Obama administration has deported record numbers of immigrants: more than 400,000 people last year alone. That's a sore point among Latino groups and immigrant advocates. And the government isn't dropping these cases. It's releasing people under what it says are more cost-effective forms of supervision.
CANIZALES: So the process is going to continue. The deportation processes are going to continue.
ROBBINS: On the other side, criticism is coming from long-time opponents of illegal immigration, like Arizona Republican Governor Jan Brewer. She says she's appalled by the release. Pinal County, Arizona has five immigration detention centers. Pinal's sheriff, Paul Babeu, says he wasn't even told until after 300 people were released last weekend.
SHERIFF PAUL BABEU: A lot of these criminal illegals weren't even arrested in my county, but they're housed in my county, and now you've just released them onto the streets and neighborhoods in my county. That's not OK, and that's part of the reason why I'm upset.
ROBBINS: In an email statement, an ICE spokeswoman said none of those released are serious criminal offenders or significant threats to public safety. Some may have served time for low-level criminal convictions. Others could be what the agency calls low-priority: elderly, long-time residents or veterans of the military, for instance. The other reason Babeu, a Republican, is upset: politics. He says the Obama administration is trying to scare people over imminent budget cuts.
BABEU: You don't have to be a detective to figure out that, likely, this is a weapon in that fight.
ROBBINS: DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano hinted at the move in a Monday briefing on possible sequester effects.
SECRETARY JANET NAPOLITANO: You know, I'm supposed to have 34,000 detention beds for immigration. How do I pay for those?
ROBBINS: ICE estimates it costs about $165 per person, per day to house detainees. The nonprofit National Immigration Forum says it could cost less than a tenth of that for supervised release. ICE isn't saying exactly what that is in these cases. Emily Tucker says the most common supervision is an electronic ankle bracelet.
EMILY TUCKER: So, people have these bracelets, these GPS devices attached to them, and they have to wear them 24 hours a day.
ROBBINS: Tucker is with Detention Watch Network, which is trying to reform what it says is an inhumane detention and deportation system. In the past, ICE officials have said Congress mandates that deportees be held in detention and not released. Emily Tucker says that this move casts doubt on that claim.
TUCKER: And, absolutely, they've proven that they don't even believe that themselves by releasing these folks.
ROBBINS: Politics, budget-cutting or both, by the time it's over, several thousand people could be out of immigration detention centers, but still awaiting deportation. Ted Robbins, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.