GOP blasts decision to release illegal immigrants due to sequester

Republicans are condemning the Obama administration’s decision to release several hundred illegal immigrants from detention facilities because of possible funding cuts from the sequester.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) blasted the move and said he would be looking for more information.

"This is very hard for me to believe that they can’t find cuts elsewhere in their agency," he said in an interview set to air Tuesday night on CBS. "I frankly think this is outrageous. And I’m looking for more facts, but I can’t believe that they can’t find the kind of savings they need out of that department short of letting criminals go free."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said the move jeopardized public safety and cut into the trust Republicans and the White House have tried to cultivate in discussions on immigration reform.

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“It’s abhorrent that President Obama is releasing criminals into our communities to promote his political agenda on sequestration,” Goodlatte said in a statement. “By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the administration is needlessly endangering American lives.”

Goodlatte, who will play a key role in the immigration debate as Judiciary’s chairman, said the move “undermines our efforts to come together with the administration and reform our nation’s immigration laws.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released the illegal immigrants this week for fear the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts widely expected to be triggered on Friday would limit the number of detainees they could pay to house.

ICE officials reviewed several hundred cases and released detainees on special supervision programs that cost less than keeping them in detention centers, according to agency spokeswoman Gillian Christensen. Christensen stressed that the agency is still detaining people seen as posing a significant threat to the public’s safety. While Christensen did not specify how many people had been released, she said that they would remain in deportation proceedings and have not been granted any form of temporary residency or citizenship.

“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,” said Christensen.

“ICE has reviewed several hundred cases and placed these individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention. All of these individuals remain in removal proceedings. Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety,” she said.

It was still too early to tell on Tuesday whether the move by ICE would endanger the long-term future of bipartisan talks on immigration reform between President Obama and the Senate, which continued on Tuesday afternoon as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) met with the president at the White House to discuss the topic.

Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wasted no time on Tuesday in blasting the move, however, saying it was evidence the administration could not be trusted to enforce immigration policies in the future.

Sessions said that Obama knew sequestration cuts were on the horizon and that he should have developed an alternative plan to deal with the looming 5.3 percent reduction to ICE’s budget by reining in facility and equipment maintenance costs as well as travel and communication expenses.

The Alabama senator accused the administration of trying to use the automatic spending cuts as an excuse to enact immigration changes that Congress would not approve.

“It is clear the administration is using the sequester as a convenient excuse to bow to political pressure from the amnesty groups, as it did with its unilateral decision to confer legal status on millions who are not lawfully present,” Sessions said in a statement.

“With this new action, the administration has further demonstrated that it has no commitment to enforcing the law and cannot be trusted to deliver on any future promises of enforcement.”

The president has made immigration reform a top legislative priority during his second term, prompting several groups of lawmakers in the House and Senate to begin crafting bills, while committees have launched into hearings on the topic.

Obama and many Democrats want a bill to include a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. But a significant number of Republicans have demanded that Congress and the administration first take more steps to tighten security along the U.S.-Mexico border. Some bad blood also remains between Republicans and the administration from last year, when ICE began prioritizing the detention and deportation of illegal immigrants who had criminal records and were deemed to pose a more significant threat to the public over those who did not.

Human rights groups praised ICE’s decision to release the illegal immigrants, saying that the move would save taxpayers millions of dollars.

“It is a shame that it took the threat of serious budget cuts to prompt this move,” said Ruthie Epstein, a spokeswoman for Human Rights First, which has long advocated for the release of non-threatening illegal immigrants.

“Even so, ICE’s decision makes clear that the government can save money by reforming its approach to immigration detention. The bottom line is that alternatives to detention are effective and save government funds.”

This story was posted at 4:06 p.m. and updated at 6:37 p.m.