Mass illegal immigrant release could be headache for Obama, tricky for GOP

The release of hundreds of illegal immigrants into a federal monitoring system this week may be an ongoing headache for the Obama administration, as Republicans focus their scrutiny on uncovering potential missteps.

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Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, “will be aggressively examining the ramification of this decision,” according to a committee aide.

And Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, pressed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to take more responsibility for the releases, which she says she did not know about beforehand.

“I am concerned that you have chosen to distance yourself from the actions of ICE,” said Coats in a letter to Napolitano on Friday. “As Secretary of Homeland Security, you have a responsibility to oversee the proper management of the department’s resources. I believe you should have been on top of this situation and taken steps far earlier to prevent this action.”

Napolitano will undoubtedly be pressed on the issue when she comes to testify on cybersecurity next Wednesday before Rep. Mike McCaul’s (R-Texas) House Homeland Security Committee. ICE Director John Morton promised to answer McCaul’s letter to him earlier this week in which he raised questions about exactly how many detainees had been released and what tools ICE was using to track illegal immigrants, a committee aide said.

But in the meantime, Republican criticism of the move could gain traction if negative reports about the actions of the illegal immigrants who were released begin to surface.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his office has received information that some of the “several hundred” people released into the monitoring program had been previously convicted on fraud, theft, and drunken driving offenses. His office declined to make the specifics of that information available to The Hill.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Napolitano, and the White House have said the move was made by career agency officials in an effort to manage ICE’s resources ahead of the automatic spending cuts that went into effect Friday with the sequestration deadline.

Although ICE publicly says it is not planning to release any more illegal immigrants into the monitoring program at this time, the Associated Press said it obtained internal budget documents on Friday stating that the agency planned to released as many as 3,000 more illegal immigrants in March. The documents also stated that more than 2,000 illegal immigrants were released this week, far more than the “several hundred” ICE officials have said.

But Republicans may run into thorns of their own on the issue, as it was under President George W. Bush that the release program — known as Alternatives to Detention (ATD) — first began. Moreover, it was Congress itself that first mandated the ATD program’s initial creation in fiscal year 2002.

According to ICE documents from 2009, the agency launched three ATD programs in 2004 and 2007, which monitor the release of illegal immigrants still in deportation proceedings using a combination of GPS ankle monitors, telephonic reporting, and unannounced home visits. Of the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who have been placed in the programs, less than 10 percent have run away or escaped, according to the 2009 report.

Republican criticism has been steadily growing since the mass release came to light on Monday, with many GOP lawmakers expressing suspicions that the move was a political attempt to spur lawmakers into reaching a sequestration deal. ICE said the decision was made by career officials in preparation for the $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts, which could limit the number of detainees ICE could pay to house.

A DHS official told The Hill that career detention facility administrators release low-risk illegal immigrants into the less costly supervision program on a nearly daily basis. Administrators make the call based on their budgetary and infrastructure constraints, without the need for sign-off approval from the White House, the official said.